You Will Think Your Life Is Over . . .

Milk DudOne blazing September day last year, Laura and I traveled between tobacco fields and down dirt roads in Nowhere, Kentucky, to adopt a green-eyed chocolate pup we’d seen only in pictures: Gordon Dudley. At home on our counter we had left behind our list of pros and cons for adopting a dachshund puppy. On that scribbled list, we had noted all we knew, the good and bad, about owning a dog. Turns out we should have listed all we didn’t know.

For instance, I didn’t know that a dog would refuse to eat except out of your hand. I didn’t know that a puppy wouldn’t sleep unless curled up between your legs. Didn’t know that he would attach himself to two people (dachshunds are prone to be devoted to one person) and show anxiety when one of those people is not in the room.

I didn’t know that a puppy shivered and ached for a whole day like an infant after getting his shots. I didn’t know a puppy experienced teething symptoms—the sickness, irritability, pain—like human children. I didn’t know a puppy threw tantrums, held grudges, sought revenge on rugs and couch cushions. And most bewilderingly, I didn’t know that a puppy did not merely add himself to your life—he became your world.

Now, after almost a year with Dudley, I can tell you this much—

When a dog comes into your life, you will think your life is over. But it’s not. Not yet.

The shower was my favorite place to cry in those early months. Sleep deprived and discouraged, I spent all my time after work training him or calming Laura from her frustration with training him all day in my absence. In the shower I could sob into a wash cloth and contemplate what we had done. I rehearsed my call to the breeder: No refund necessary—just take him back.

Seeing my puffy eyes later, Laura begged me not to say it. Ignoring her, I’d burst out,Dudleyblog3 “What were we thinking? Why did we get him?”

“Pal, we’ll give him until Christmas,” she promised. “If he’s not better by then, we’ll tie a bow around his neck and give him to someone we don’t like.”

It seemed that everyone we met had a story about a dachshund who lived an impressively long life. We were once waylaid in the park by an elderly couple who patted Dudley’s head and fondly recounted the recent passing of their own dachshund—at 18 years old.

I swallowed the lump in my throat. Eighteen years sounded like a sentence of some kind. I’d be 48, about to enter menopause and not far from collecting social security, still trying to tie together the ends of my life that this dog had unraveled.

I’m hesitant to call those moments regret. They more closely resembled grief, bereavement for a life no longer wholly mine. My heart hadn’t expanded yet like a balloon, ready to be filled with love. I had to learn to let my life go, to call it over, before it could really begin.

You will think your life is over—but it has only just begun.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” the memes say. And there’s a lot of uncomfortable truth to that. Adopting a puppy broadened my life with understanding of a creature other than myself, and in that new understanding, it feels like my life is just beginning. Here are a few things Dudley has taught me.

1. Hard Things Will Become Easier with Time

It was hard for me to imagine a day when Dudley would play on his own withoutDuds sleeping needing a constant companion; when he would eat his food from his dish; when he wouldn’t need continual supervision to make sure he went potty outside.

Dachshunds are notoriously hard to housebreak. Those first months were torture, taking him outside every 20 minutes even in the dark and rain. Once he went a whole week without an accident in the house. We felt pleased at our training—until Laura found a turd graveyard beneath her bed. I’ve never felt so angry and betrayed. We yelled. We spanked him. We put him in his crate. I grieved again.

Eventually, of course, Dudley stopped peeing and pooping inside, learned to entertain himself, and is finally eating his food. Now I wonder, What did we love before Duds? What did we talk about? Where did we derive the joy of watching him root through each grocery bag to find a treat or toy? This very hard thing—one of the hardest things that  had ever done—got much easier. And gives me strength to think of doing other hard things.

2. Work Through Distraction. Duds misbehaved when he didn’t get enough sleep, so onDuds lyingweekends Laura and I put him in his crate, covered it with a blanket, and left the house so he would nap. During those times, we went to a cafe’ to write, and I finally started keeping up with my blog. With my determination to post a blog once a week, I soon discovered that I needed to be writing each evening. But Dudley didn’t make that easy. He wanted to play constantly, and needed to be supervised.

For a while, I resented the distraction, wanted to delay my creation until I found the perfect conditions. E. B. White, a man who knew a bit about the dachshund life, said, “Creation is in part merely the business of forgoing the great and small distractions.” He was right.

It took practice, but eventually I learned to write a sentence at a time while throwing a stuffed toy or petting a velvety head or balancing a computer on top of a puppy on my lap. And I learned to be grateful for the distraction. Without Dudley, I might not have started writing again. Sometimes only a great disruption can give us the discipline and structure to get things done.

3. Let Go of Things. Dudley added so much to our lives—joy, laughter, purpose, an object for our love. But for each thing he brought, he also took something. Sleep went first to his Duds and LAmbiepuppy bladder calling at 4:30 a.m., then to a full-grown dog—the longest dog you’ll ever meet—stretching horizontally in my bed and kicking my kidneys.

I’ve said goodbye to a clean apartment and hello to bites of unwanted kibble by the food dish, half-chewed antlers on the couch, and cotton entrails of mutilated stuffed toys strewn across the room like a crime scene. I lost the freedom to leave for day excursions without worrying about Dudley and feeling guilty for leaving him alone.

I’ve lost money on food he refused to eat, toys he demolished, and a computer cord that suffered the brunt of his boredom. I lost grocery store receipts, a brand new decorative blanket, and to-do lists on chewed up sticky notes. But I also lost the need for order and perfection. Life, in large part, is just figuring out what is worth holding onto and what is worth letting go.

4. Look for Cause and Effect. When we walked up to the breeder’s kennel, Dudley refused to come forward. He was trapped behind the gate, and though happily wagging his tail, he refused to push his way out to see us. The breeder reached behind the gate to gather the handful of wiggling pup. A few weeks later, after discovering Dudley’s fear of going under things, we understood his refusal to crawl beneath the gate.

We’ve also learned that when he needs to poop, he runs around frantically. When he starts tearing at the rug, he’s upset that we haven’t DudleyBlogplayed with him; when he’s digging at the couch, there’s a toy underneath; when we praise him, he behaves much better than when we punish him. I’ve learned the beautiful symmetry of cause and effect and now try to look for it without hasty, simplistic judgment.

5. Get Past Just. I can’t bring myself to say, “He’s just a dog.” If ever you hear someone say that a dog doesn’t have feelings, don’t believe him. Duds is a dog, for sure; but he’s more than just a dog—he’s a creature who deserves my respect.

When I take the time to look into his eyes, to see him cock his head and try so hard to understand my words, I know that just is often an excuse for my bad behavior. It reminds me of other just phrases: She’s just a teenager. He’s just a boy. She’s just got a temper. I’m just a no name. You’re just a loser. Just is often the start of abuse, disrespect, or dismissive behavior—toward creatures and humans.

You thought your life was over—but then it is.

No puppy website adequately warned me that my life would be filled not only with warm hand licks and soft bellies, but also bags of poop, impacted anal glands, putrid teething breath, maddening hours waiting for him to find the right squat spot, and Duds and Flowerthe knowledge that all this—his life and my life as I’ve known it—will end.

To hold a dog is to embrace a life of concentrated joy yet inevitably swift sadness. Their lives are only a fraction of ours, forcing us to make the most of each day. The current fullness of my heart informs my future depth of emptiness. How long would the carpet take to smooth out from the imprint of his crate. How long would it take me to gather his toys from where he last left them?

Whenever the end comes, it will come too soon. So for now I stroke that soft spot on the side of his neck, kiss between his eyes, breathe in the sweetness of his fur, and love him.

The heart is a great alchemist, over time turning inconvenience into pleasure, frustration into joy, resistance into love. Time, if we’re listening, teaches us to be better humans. I didn’t know much when Dudley entered my life, but my time with him has taught me what Roger Caras knew: “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”

me and dudley




Drive Reckless: 8 Lessons for Becoming the World’s Worst Dad

This weekend, millions of children will celebrate the men who, in some way or another, shaped their lives. In glowing Hallmark prose set to the backdrop of tools, golf clubs, grill aprons, footballs, and fishing poles, the nation celebrates the admirable attributes of the men we call “Dad.”

Dads, I know you aspire to earn those cards that name you “World’s Best Dad.” But let’s face it—how many of you actually reach that level of perfection?

If you’re set on getting an award this Father’s Day, maybe instead you should be reaching for a more attainable achievement—something like Okayest Father Certificate or Worst Dad of the Year Award. To get you started on your award-winning journey, here are eight lessons you could learn from my own father about how to be the world’s worst dad.

  1. Take yourself too seriously. When your daughter is taking a road trip and you tell her to drive safe, and she says, “No, duh,” be sure to get offended and lecture her. Whatever you do, from that point on, don’t tell her to “Drive reckless” each time she takes a trip. And when a woman strikes up a conversation about cube steaks in the grocery store meat department and your daughter asks, “Why in the world did she ask you about cube steaks?” don’t shrug and say, “I must look like a guy who’s eaten a cube steak.” Be sure to get offended easily and grouse about how you “don’t get no respect.”
  2. Don’t bother to learn new things. Don’t stand alone in every museum, zoo, or aquarium after your family has moved on, poring over signs, reading every line of information. Don’t have something to say about nearly every topic, offering facts you gleaned from your addiction to NPR. When you’re watching I Love Lucy, don’t say, “You know, John Wayne once said she was the prettiest woman in Hollywood.” And when you’re playing Scrabble, don’t eye the board with a poker face, then end the game with a word (stakeout) worth 152 points. It’s important to maintain the “stupid dad” role.
  3. Don’t teach your kids to appreciate nature. Don’t bring home garter snakes or praying mantises or snapping turtles. Don’t point out spider egg sacs—like Charlotte’s magnum opus—or the giant red velvet ants in the yard or luna moths on the screen at night. Don’t raise a squirrel kit, name it Earl, let it ride around in your shirt pocket, and, when the time comes, let it go back to nature. Don’t encourage your son to collect snakes and lizards. Don’t keep a baby crocodile named George. And especially don’t bring home an injured red-tailed hawk (no seriously—don’t do it. It’s illegal!), don’t build a cage, nurse it back to health, or set it free. Don’t fondly call your family’s crusty tom cat “Old Man” and invite him to sit on your chest because you’re the only human being that he prefers—and you kind of like that exclusivity.
  4. Don’t take advantage of teachable moments. When your daughter shows you the cross-stitch she just finished, don’t praise her and then turn it over to point to the chaotic back and explain how life is sometimes like that—messy in order to make something beautiful. And when she crashes through yet another piano recital, her nervous hands shaking off the keys, but finishes on the right note, don’t go to her room later and tell her that it’s not how she starts but how she finishes that counts.
  5. Avoid trying new things and taking adventures. Don’t go to Big Lots or the dent and discount store up the road just to see what funky foods you can try, like the newest cereal flop or offbeat snack flavor that didn’t even make it to the store shelves. And don’t take a drive with your daughter to find a cottage in the woods where you took her years ago on a workday and where she fell in love with it while you built cabinets in the kitchen. And when you can’t remember where the house is, don’t drive down every back road and driveway trying to jostle your memory, and in the end never find it but make good memories anyway.  And when business takes you about an hour away from where she lives in Florida, don’t ask her to come see you, and when she forgets her suitcase, don’t walk her through every Walmart and Goodwill in the tiny town, picking up tacky outfits that you genuinely admire and she genuinely abhors. Always be sure to play it safe and don’t take risks—just stay in front of the television, maybe.
  6. Freak out during emergencies. Don’t stay calm when the tire falls off your family’s van going 75 mph down an interstate and then pilot the careening vehicle across four lanes of traffic to safety. And when your wife cuts her hand on a broken dish in the kitchen, don’t raise your voice a little to make her calm down. When a kid is running through J.C. Penney and runs smack into a metal rack, don’t stay with the mother until paramedics come to sew up the kid’s bleeding gash.
  7. Don’t teach your children to be comfortable talking to people. Don’t embarrass your kids by asking hotel clerks for discounts, the pizza guy for “no shows,” or perfect strangers for information. Don’t strike up a conversation with anyone wearing a T-shirt or sporting a bumper sticker on their car that might give you something to talk about. Don’t serve in small churches for your children’s whole lives, taking them along to pick up bus kids and handicapped church members. And when your state congressman inexplicably walks into the diner where you take your daughter for her birthday lunch, don’t stop the man on his way to the restroom to thank him for his service and ask his opinion about Washington politics.  Teach your kids not to talk to strangers and to be suspicious of everyone.
  8. Don’t be vulnerable or open. If you remember nothing else, get this in your head: don’t show your children that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Don’t tell the story from your childhood of the dusk when you killed dozens of fireflies with a paper plate, swatting them mid-glow, and later went inside racked with guilt. (If you tell your daughter that story, she might tell you that she once cried because she killed a wasp, watching it suffer and writhe on the windowsill, doused in Windex.) Don’t tear up at Frank Capra movies or choke with emotion when you read one of your daughter’s stories. Hold it together—grown men don’t cry. Don’t make it awkward.

So there you have it: some tips from my dad on how to be the world’s worst father. Of course Dad never quite got it right—in fact he ended up doing the opposite of everything you’d want to do if you’ve got a low goal in mind. It would have been really easy for Dad to earn that “worst dad” status, but somehow he ended up raising five highly functional, fairly likeable, mostly OK-looking kids who love him and think he’s all right.

So happy Father’s Day to my dad and all the dads out there who go against these rules. You most definitely would not win a Worst Father of the Year Award.

What a bunch of losers.

Better luck next year.