What I Hope to See at the Total Solar Eclipse

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Picture from Someone Is Eating the Sun

“This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt.”—Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse”

An astronomer I know told me of the 1979 total solar eclipse he saw in Manitoba. You must know this: the astronomer can fill a conversation by himself as both informer and inquisitor, providing both questions and answers. He likes to talk and is very adept at entertaining and educating eager listeners. His wife gives him space, content to slink comfortably in silence—eclipsed in his good-natured verbosity.

He recorded his eclipse encounter on a cassette tape. After later replaying the tape, the astronomer realized that his wife chattered through the eclipse while he remained silent. He shrugged. “It brings different things out of different people.”

Everyone who has witnessed a total solar eclipse reports that to watch the moon blot out the sun like a judgment is a spiritual experience, life changing even. Some have wept. Some have screamed. Annie Dillard wrote an essay.

A total eclipse is coming in August 21. I wonder what it will bring out of me?

They’re calling it the Great American Eclipse, as if America will manufacture it in Detroit or project it from Texas. One might picture the sun, when we finally glimpse its corona, wearing a red hat with tired font: Make America Great Again.

Though it is the same moon that crosses the same sun in eclipses the world over, and though there will be other total eclipses, we rightly claim this eclipse as our own because it’s showing exclusively on US mainland soil. Supposedly, the last time this happened was AD 436; the next time will be 2316.

The eclipse will only air once, no rewind, no reruns.

To prepare for the eclipse, last week my friend bought our glasses. “They’re so cheap,” she said, bending the flimsy cardboard. “But I guess the eclipse will only be two minutes.” (1).

Two minutes and ten seconds, I think, struck with the brevity, the specificity of this event. Eclipses keep a tight schedule. We have instant replay for our sports, repeat setting for our music, and downloads to watch at our leisure. But the eclipse will only air once, no rewind, no reruns. At 2:38 the show starts, be there or be square. We dither over seconds, marking the duration with precision, like time of birth and time of death and the time stamp of a punch clock.

Though Carbondale, Illinois, will revel in the longest duration of totality for 2 minutes and 40 seconds, people will flock to anywhere within that much-mentioned path of totality, a relatively narrow strip from Oregon to South Carolina. After all, to almost see a total eclipse is to miss it completely.

“I’ve seen partial eclipses before and—” The astronomer made a noise with his mouth, like a party popper, a cheap thrill. “You’ve got to be in the path of totality. People will be in areas where they’ll see the eclipse at 97% and have no idea the sight they’re missing an hour away. It’s the difference of night and day—literally.” And to watch it on TV, the astronomer snorted, “Would be like phoning it in on your wedding night.”

So the weekend before August 21, I’ll drive six hours to my parents’ home in Greenville, South Carolina. According to projected numbers on greatamericaneclipse.com, over 2 million people could possibly trek to my home state for this event.

When the astronomer watched the full eclipse in ’79, he did so beside a construction site. As the darkness fell, men in the backhoes turned on their lights and continued moving earth, too engulfed in their work or dimness to track constellations midday or keep appointment with eclipses (3). They sensed the darkness, but they did not see the eclipse.

They sensed the darkness, but they did not see the eclipse.

I, for one, wouldn’t miss seeing the eclipse for the world.

But what if I do?

Of course I am concerned that the weather will not cooperate, that clouds will roll in (as they often do on Southern summer afternoons), obscuring the show like a curtain. “Look at the weather the night before,” the astronomer advised. “Plan to drive two, three hours to clearer skies.” But if common sense leads the millions of other eclipse watchers to do the same, officials fear gridlock on interstates, with witless drivers stopping mid highway to watch the sky.

But more than the weather or traffic, I am afraid that this eclipse will not change my life—that I’ll see the darkness, but miss the eclipse. What if I’m too aware, too prepared, shot up on the critics’ praise like for the summer blockbuster movie that halfway through I realized should have been rented for $1.50 from Redbox?

What if the eclipse passes before I can read the epiphanies it smears across the sky? What if I don’t lose myself in the deep shadow or am not transfixed by the fiery halo of sun or not hypnotized by the shadow bands writhing across the ground?

I might not worry if it weren’t for my track record with disappointment. A few years ago at the Smithsonian in D.C., my struggle with disillusionment surfaced twice. I’ve seen prize squash more impressive than the Hope diamond. And the shriveled remains of the giant squid—this was what Nemo fought against so valiantly to save Ned Land? Where was the snapping beak, the dinner-plate eyes, the fearsome suction-cupped tentacles? (2)

I dread to ever see the Grand Canyon, afraid I might sigh over what others are breathless. Perhaps the problem is that nothing can match the immensity of my expectations.

In my fear of disappointment, I wish to stand on a solitary mountain or lie in a field somewhere to watch this eclipse, to commune with my wonder or disappointment, with only nature around to witness me witness the event. But even the cows will respond, plodding toward the barn, and the swallows will change their course toward home. In its own way, even nature obeys the power of an eclipse.

Together we’ll see the eclipse and make of it what we will.

This week an article headline stated, “The Solar Eclipse Path Will Overwhelmingly Pass Over Trump Country.” On it went, rehashing numbers and statistics, a poker in the embers, a stick to the sleeping bear, a fingernail beneath the scab, a tug to the fray. What is it to us the path that the center of the solar system chooses to take across the nation? It knows nothing of our squabbles, the high drama of earth—and does not care. The eclipse will draw a line all will gather on—no matter their usual party line. The eclipse has come to unite us, to distract us with a display more magnificent than our old standby, divisive obsessions. It has come, perhaps, not a moment too soon.

I’ll take in the view at a park, surrounded by hundreds of people drawn from the small town and from places beyond the Carolina borders, states, perhaps even continents, away. Together we’ll watch the coming darkness; together we’ll see the eclipse and make of it what we will. And anyway, maybe that is the point.

The last time that an eclipse shadowed the United States in this particular path, from coast to coast, was June 8, 1918. That autumn, another shadow darkened the world—the Spanish Influenza. When that shadow passed it had taken almost 700,000 lives, affecting a quarter of the United States and elsewhere a third of the planet’s population. Before the end they piled the bodies in the streets, black and blue from suffocation. Do you suppose they recalled the eclipse then, pondering whether it had been a sign, a premonition too glorious to read, too ominous to have been ignored as the country gasped, drawing the last of their breaths together?

I wonder, too, what else is coming for us later or soon? For what other kind of storm or eclipse might we gather to view in totality?

Perhaps then we’ll remember our wonder not merely that the heavenly bodies aligned, but that on an August day, in a year when the nation could hardly agree on anything, the heavens brought us together, as it seems only heaven could. In one small swath across the nation, we huddled until the scene had passed, at last comprehending our place in the universe.

 

. . . . . . . . . . . .

1. It’s a dangerous misconception that you’ll wear your glasses only to see the moment of totality. In a total eclipse you can take the glasses off only at the time of totality. However at all other times in an eclipse, it is necessary to wear them. Never look at the sun without proper eye protection: eclipse blindness is a real thing! Since in Greenville the partial eclipse begins at 1:09 and ends at 4:02, I sure hope those glasses are comfortable, because we could be wearing them for up to almost 3 hours—minus 2 minutes and 10 seconds, of course.

2. More than likely it was a colossal squid exaggerated by Jules Verne’s terrific imagination.

3. A phrase Eudora Welty used in her book One Writer’s Beginnings.

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Intentional Thinking: An Ironically Sane Wonderland–Part 2

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Guest post by Hannah La Joy Johnston

Note: In the previous post, the author discussed her decision to think intentionally.

Here is a super basic how-to for intentional thinking.

1. Find somewhere peaceful where you can be alone. Remember, peaceful silence is vital!

2. Set a time limit for thinking (start short and build up to longer periods), remove all distractions, feel yourself breathe, relax, and sweep your mind clear. It helps to imagine a white, clean surface expanding in all directions, or maybe a wide-open field or ocean stretching as far as you can see. (I go into more detail in my book Butterflies In Formation: A Practical Approach to Managing Performance Anxiety.)

3. Choose your thought. Your mind will probably jump to the pressing ones first.

  • If there’s an issue needing your attention, consciously think of pros and cons while mentally talking through possible plans of action.
  • If there is nothing pressing, I like to think on things that interest me: perhaps retelling the book chapters I read last night or carefully combing through plot points and character development in a story or movie or thinking on often hard-to-concentrate-on subject like politics, moral issues, and spiritual issues. It can be uncomfortable at first, because your mind may strain, naturally wanting to wander away. But relax—don’t squeeze the thought; give it room to breathe by repeating step 3. Clear your cluttered thoughts away again and focus in on the one you want.
  • I particularly enjoy choosing a subject I’m interested in but know little about. After doing some targeted research, I synthesize my findings in my understanding and memory to bring up in conversation later. Some memorable subjects were as interesting and random as blobfish, salty gators, Einstein’s theory of ether (bending space-time), the physical language of ballet, invasive species, ancient Egypt, Freemasonry, diamond construction, and deep-sea exploration. Stuff like this can make the mind a real Wonderland!

4. Don’t write your thoughts down just yet. That may distract you from thinking. Simply contemplate them first. Keep paper nearby and jot a bullet point summary, then go back and fill in the details once you’ve finished thinking.

5. Ask yourself questions.

6. Control your inner monologue to retain a calm conversation. Try to use specific, colorful words to vividly describe what you mean.

7. Quickly write your ideas in phrases. Don’t worry about all the filler words—just get the important ideas down so you can revisit them later. These are your signposts on your Thought Road.

8. Guard your mind from jumping from idea to idea without meaning to. If you’re relaxed and absorbed in your chosen thought, it will get easier to stay on track the more you practice.

9. Don’t be frustrated if you don’t arrive at your thought’s destination this time. Mark down your progress. You’ll be able to find your way back next time to start farther along than you first began.

Intentional thinking is rather rare these days since many people don’t care or haven’t stopped to think about . . . thinking. I just know that purposeful, disciplined thinking has changed my life. It helps me simultaneously see more of life’s fascinating microscopic details and its mind-blowing scope. It reminds me that although humanity is finite, tiny, we have a world within us—a virtually unexplored and untapped Wonderland sitting on our shoulders.

Just stop and think about that!

 

. . . . . . . .

HannahWith her BA and MS degrees in speech performance, Hannah La Joy Johnston has been a performing arts instructor for over 5 years at Pensacola Christian College in Pensacola, FL. In 2016 she self-published her first book, Butterflies In Formation, and continues to write children’s books from home with her husband, her husky, and her hound as her daily inspirations. Several of her children’s books are nearly ready for publication. Be on the lookout for Dirty Paws, an epic war between the birds and the bees, this winter! 

Intentional Thinking: An Ironically Sane Wonderland–Part 1

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Guest Post by Hannah La Joy Johnston

Alice in Wonderland always stressed me out. I thought Wonderland would be so cool if it weren’t so random. Plunging down rabbit trails with all their frantic twists and turns seemed erratic and chaotic. But whenever I sat quietly to think for any extended period, my thoughts did just that: inevitably bounded down rabbit trails and often lost the main Thought Road altogether. One day, I finally decided to take control of my thoughts. Intentional thinking was tough at first, but it opened a new ironically sane Wonderland for me to explore inside my own head.

As a kid, I was never without heroes: Jesus (standing entirely on His own level), J. R. R. Tolkien, Gandalf, Dumbledore, King Arthur, the Samurai in general, and Batman. They all had one thing in common that stood out to me—they were Deep Thinkers, Great Considerers who often stood apart from the crowd. Each were men of action, but before the action always came careful consideration of wise, internal counsel. I admired that because it was something I desperately wanted, but couldn’t seem to master or enjoy. One day I told myself, “Intentional thinking is important. So suck it up and just do it.” And here’s how I did it.

1. I learned to be comfortable with silence.

When I was 12, I started the basics of self-disciplined thought this way: I sat outside perfectly still with my Doberman and my pet pig (yes, my pet pig—I was homeschooled and lived in Arizona in the middle of nowhere) and swept away any bombarding thought, only allowing myself to observe what was going on around me. Nothing else.

If we were to continue the rabbit trail analogy, this allowed me to stand at the start of the Thought Road and consider which way I wanted to go, rather than charging down the first available stream-of-consciousness path. I learned not only to be comfortable with silence, but to truly love it. Peaceful silence is vital for intentional thought.

2. I decided to actively give attention to my observations.

The second step came when I realized that I couldn’t recall something simple, like a person’s face, when I wanted to. You try it right now. If you were asked to describe a colleague’s face in detail, could you do it? If you can, bravo!

When I was 14, I met a boy I liked and invited him to church. I had a panic attack as I waited for him to arrive because I realized that I couldn’t remember what his face looked like! I agonized that he may not be as good-looking as I’d bragged to my friends. When he showed up, I recognized him immediately (and he was very cute), but I couldn’t have described him beforehand if my life had depended on it.

I realized I couldn’t just passively observe anymore; I needed to actively give attention to what I observed. I needed to intentionally take note of what I experienced on my Thought Roads.

3. I discovered the absolute necessity of thinking on subjects outside their allotted time and place.

In college this helped me remember clear details about Thought Roads I’d already traveled so I could easily revisit them when I wanted.

For example, my two degrees in speech performance required that I memorize verbatim long performance scripts every few days on top of my normal coursework. I made it a point to proactively think (not just rote memory study) about class information outside of those class and rehearsal times. I actively asked myself questions about the material to increase personal associations, and repetitively wrote down information that I needed to stick. It solidified the material in my mind so much better than those quick cram sessions in class. My memory stretched and strengthened until quick, clear memory became second nature.

Thinking intentionally has helped me to be more decisive, much more efficient and focused in my work, and more empathetic in my relationships. I used to be unsure of my thoughts on many topics simply because I hadn’t really considered them fully. Now when asked, I know where I stand. It has also helped me be much more fluid in my teaching and speaking. It really is like walking a familiar road. Since you know the way so well yourself, it’s easier to take others along with you.

In Part 2 I’ll give you some quick, easy steps for finding your own Thought Roads!

. . . . . . . . .

HannahWith her BA and MS degrees in speech performance, Hannah La Joy Johnston has been a performing arts instructor for over 5 years at Pensacola Christian College in Pensacola, FL. In 2016 she self-published her first book, Butterflies In Formation, and continues to write children’s books from home with her husband, her husky, and her hound as her daily inspirations. Several of her children’s books are nearly ready for publication. Be on the lookout for Dirty Paws, an epic war between the birds and the bees, this winter! 

 

Finding the Words

baseballThe summer breeze awakened the flag, unfurling its colors above the crowded Greenville Drives baseball stadium in South Carolina. With thousands of other fans, I stood, hand over heart, waiting to pledge allegiance in song.

Across the stadium, I spotted the young woman preparing to lead us in “The Star Spangled Banner.” My usual apprehension at the quality of hometown divas vanished when, rather than shaking out the first note, she belted out the lyrics more confidently than any other amateur anthem singer I’d heard.

“O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?”

Though the woman’s crystalline voice reassured me, my cynical side braced for the high note that most singers screech on. I clinched my eyes shut, cringing preemptively.

“And the rockets’ red glare—”

In her dramatic pause, I reveled, indulging in my relief of a well-hit note and the pride of the patriotic tune.

But the pause stretched into a stop.

“I’m sorry.” The woman laughed nervously into the microphone. “Can I start over?”

The entire stadium shuffled uncomfortably as she cleared her throat and started “O saying” from the very beginning. Settling once again into the patriotic ambiance, I turned back to the flag, my hand still resting reverently on my chest.

She started “O saying” from the very beginning.

As she neared the rocket line, again I took a deep breath and held it through the perilous fight and the ramparts gallantly streaming, all the way up to—

“And the rockets’ red glare—”

Once again the rockets hovered in the heat-laden summer air.

With the eyes of the stadium on her, the woman shook her head. “I’m sorry. I can’t finish it.” This time, she handed over the microphone and walked off the field.

“I’m sorry. I can’t finish it.”

The National Anthem, at least for the adult generation in the stadium, entered our repertoire in kindergarten, as familiar as the alphabet. But instead of any one of us finishing the lines, we hesitantly lowered our hands, the announcer yelled, “Play ball,” and the evening continued as if one of the most awkward moments in the history of sporting events hadn’t just happened.

In fact the crowd seemed to have already disregarded the incident entirely as the players approached the plates and the game began. But I carried with me the uneasy feeling of a duty shirked, of a sacred thing offended with no one to defend its honor.

Inning to inning, the scene replayed itself over in my head until the game ended with fireworks and music blaring. I shuffled out of the stands, one drop among a river of people.

Just before leaving the stadium, I glanced back at the field, imagining a different version of the evening. The woman relinquishing the microphone. The crowd searching for direction. And in the blank of silence, instead of the resonating drawl of “play ball,” my tiny voice leading the stadium in letting the final lines burst in the air—

Americans uniting in song, finding the words together.

Flip-Flopping Is My Super Power

Diane Face2Diane Tarantini and I met in the same MFA program. She is one of the most enthusiastic people that I know and is always willing to share her knowledge and excitement with others. She lives in a 106-year-old Sears “kit house” in Morgantown, Best Virginia. To read her lessons from a life half lived, visit her blog, dianetarantini.com. She also recently became a lifestyle columnist for a West Virginia newspaper. I’m so excited to have her as my guest blogger today.

My name is Diane Tarantini, and I’m a flip-flopper. It’s a good thing I’m not a politician because in the political sphere, flip-flopping is usually seen as a no-no. Now that I’m half a century old, I view flip-flopping as more positive than negative. More of a softening, or a wizening, than a failure. Let me show you what I mean.

    • I don’t want/need God. Back in high school, one night after youth group, I told God, “I believe in you and the stuff in the Bible, but I can’t have fun with all those rules. I’ll get back to you someday. Like, right before I die, okay?” God didn’t answer. About 15 year ago, I decided God was actually pretty cool, and I let Him into my life. Even though it was sooner than I planned, these days I wish I’d done it even sooner.
    • I don’t want/need a husband. Due to my mother’s mental health issues, my father’s tendency to hang out in our basement instead of with us, and three older brothers behaving badly, I did not have a perfect childhood. My theory is that, in circumstances like this, individuals often become independent to a fault, believing they can’t count on anyone except themselves. Up until my last semester of college, marriage never crossed my mind. But then my husband (aka Tony-Bear) came along, and within a few months, we fell from best friendship into love. When he proposed, I knew I’d be a fool to say no, so I didn’t.
    • I don’t want kids. Because my family was flawed, I questioned my own ability to mother. But now there was another opinion to consider—Tony-Bear’s. Though he never said that no kids was a deal-breaker, I knew he wanted six. So when he asked me to consider having just one, I agreed. In time, motherhood became my favorite job ever. (Read more about that in “Goldfish Crackers and Four-Course Dinners.”)
    • I’m a big city girl. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to get the heck out of West Virginia and rarely return. Plan A was to move to New York City after college graduation to accept a job as a big-wig advertising executive on Madison Avenue. Plan B (aka reality) was moving to Washington, DC, where I took a position at a yellow-pages directory company earning $13,000/year. One day we decided we no longer wanted to spend a considerable portion of our lives in stand-still traffic, so we moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. 

      A few years later, Tony asked the dreaded question: “Want to move back to West Virginia? Because if we don’t, my parents will sell the family business and. . . ” He made his caramel-colored eyes all puppy-dog huge and his full, cherry-colored lips are really good at pouting. So we made a pact: if either of us hated it at the end of the first year back, we’d start over somewhere else. That was 1993 and we’re still here.

    • I’m done with college forever. Thirty years after I declared, “No more higher education for me,” I applied to grad school. Finally I’d found what I wanted to be when I grew up—a writer. I didn’t pursue my MFA in creative writing thinking it would guarantee me a publishing deal. I simply wanted to learn more about the activity I loved. Not only did I learn way more about writing than I expected, I made some really great friends!
    • I love cats. Dead ones. Let me explain. I was a funky, punky chick in college. I was the girl with an almost-mohawk who usually looked like she was going to a funeral. Regardless of the weather, I wore a jean jacket with buttons pinned all over the front. Including the one about dead cats. I didn’t really want them dead. I just didn’t want them in my house. 

      When I was little, somehow it took me (and my parents) over a decade to figure out that I was highly allergic to cats. Because my dad kept the house super cold at night during the winter months, I’d tuck our calico cat Ginger at the bottom of my bed to warm the sheets. In the mornings, I’d wake up with slit eyes, hives all over my arms and neck, and extremely congested sinuses. For years, I’m pretty sure we kept Benadryl in business.

       

      For some reason, when I hit my 40s, my cat allergy disappeared. One day Tony-Bear came home with a fist-sized, black and white, Norwegian Forest kitten. “Can we keep it?” he asked. Our son, I call him Junior-Man, had already decided on a name for her: Bonnie, short for Bonneville. Because he’s crazy about old cars. I chose her middle name—Agnes—after the little gal from the animated kids’ movie Despicable Me. Two months later we adopted a playmate for Bonnie—a gray tabby I named Boots Louise.

    • All this to say, if I’ve learned anything in half a century of living, it’s—

       

      Never say never.

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 I  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.