Old Dogs

Our dogs Molly and Winston have become old dogs. Molly is graying, overweight and cranky. She waddles around the house like an oversized stuffed pepper, eating anything she can find. Around 7 pm she stares at my wife and me until one of us picks her up and puts her on the couch so she can watch The Wheel. When she gets tired of our company we set her back on the floor and she slowly walks into the bedroom so she can sleep alone. Our once trim, athletic Jack Russell now seems chronically tired and a little depressed.

Our rescue Winston has become the Old Eccentric Uncle of the house. He is still trim, but he’s stinky, deaf, near blind, and more than a little forgetful. His Terrier courage seems to have left him as he now startles easily and yips at the slightest touch. Quite often at dusk he stands motionless in the front yard, gazing intently for hours towards the western horizon. Lori thinks he’s waiting for his previous owner to come back for him… romantically looking off into the distance for the return of a lost love. But, since I too am becoming an old dog, I know that puzzled look on his face. He just can’t remember why he went outside. Just put a set of car keys in one paw and a grocery bag in the other and he’s me… trying to figure out where he parked at Publix.

The dogs and I occasionally forget that we aren’t young dogs anymore. But, we can’t help it. There are powerful instincts at work here… to chase the rabbit, to lift the refrigerator, to fight the pit bull, to do a handstand on the pool deck… to feel the thrill of getting away with something reckless again. Oh, we old dogs can still accomplish some young dog stunts, but in the end, there is almost always a price to pay.

Last week in Georgia, Winston, inspired by the mountain air, began running around the pond like a young pup. He was going full speed, ears flopping in the wind, tongue hanging out, smiling a big doggy smile. You could almost hear him yelling FREEDOM as he rounded the corner, trying to leap onto the dock. Unfortunately his vision isn’t what it was and he jumped five feet to soon, causing him to plow face first into the side of the dock. After he ricocheted off of the dock he fell into the water, yipping and flailing around, trying to keep from drowning. I know it sounds horrible, but the water was only three inches deep. So as soon as he finally stood up and realized he was relatively unharmed, he skulked over and hid behind the air conditioner for the rest of the morning, his confidence and pride shaken for days.

Molly, on the other hand, no longer runs much. Mostly because she’s shaped like a melon and the slightest bump or rise in the ground causes her skinny little front legs to collapse and her chin to skid on the ground. But also because she’s content to take it easy as she wades around in the pond or rides with me on the four- wheeler. That is, until she sees a soccer ball. Instantly (albeit briefly) she becomes a young super dog again… obsessively barking while she chases and herds the ball like a world champion soccer player, punching it like a seal with her snout. She used to carry on like that for hours, but now she will suddenly stop after a few minutes and walk back to the air conditioning of the house, her Kibble and her blanket. She has become a dog quite aware of and content with her limitations.

As for myself, after 45 years in the construction trade I still cannot resist the temptation to grab the sledgehammer out of the hands of a twenty-year-old and show him how it’s done. Although it feels good to be the big dog, rather quickly my body gives me a painful and not so subtle hint and I casually hand off the 16-pound hammer back to the rookie along with a firm pat on his back. On the drive back to the office I assess the damage I’ve done to myself, stretching out the familiar spasms in my shoulder and lower back while burying my face in the air conditioning.

When I limp home that night I do so with a smile, because I am no longer discouraged by the limitations of my age and the mileage on my body. I’m proud to have earned them… and to curl up on the couch with some kibble and a blanket next to Molly and Winston.

For the Love of Cheetos

Every morning I wake up and let our dogs Molly and Winston outside. Not because I want to… but because they MAKE me! As I try to wring out an extra 15 minutes of sleep… Molly sits there next to the bed… staring at me, growling. Then, every minute or so, she’ll jump up and punch me, kangaroo style with both her little Jack Russell hooves. Like any responsible pet owner I try to wave her away, my face still buried in the pillow. It finally takes Winston (a.k.a. Mr. Buzzard Breath), to wake me up. One lick on my face and a strong exhale from him and I’m awake… and nauseous.

As soon as my feet hit the floor both dogs become the happiest creatures on the planet… smiling little doggie smiles, spinning around in circles, running at full speed through the house. No, not because they have to go outside… but because they get two dog biscuits when they come back inside. Personally, I just don’t get. Dog biscuits are hard, dry as dust and taste like they’re made out of dried mud and straw. (Yes, I tried one.)

But to our dogs, biscuits are ambrosia! They love and crave them beyond all reason, and without knowing or caring what they’re made of. As they come barreling in the house after their frantic “tour” of the backyard, they spin, jump, beg, walk on their front legs, do card tricks, ride unicycles… whatever it takes to get a biscuit from me. Once they snap the precious cardboard flavored “bone” out of my fingers they rush off to opposite sides of the house so they can crunch up their rock hard cookies in private, all the while making little yummy noises of delight. It actually makes me a little envious. What must it be like to love and crave a treat that much? Especially one that’s not exactly “food.” You guessed it… this is where the Cheetos come in.

I suppose we all have our own “dog biscuit,” and yesterday, as I stood alone in the supermarket checkout line, I realized what mine was. Cheetos… the crunchy kind. I casually looked around. There were no witness’. I snagged a bag off of the rack and quickly laid them down between the salad mix and almond milk. Once I was safely in the car I ripped open the bag and wolfed down crunchy, salt loaded handfuls of the florescent orange, extruded then fried…I don’t know… Corn guts? Whatever! I really didn’t care… They’re delicious! As I upended the bag and poured the tasty last crumbs into my mouth, I made a little “dog yummy sound” and then felt a twinge of guilt. I knew they weren’t good for me and that if my wife found out that I had eaten an entire bag of Cheetos… I was in big trouble. I stuffed the empty bag under the car seat and began licking my paws like a cat while driving down the road. I know… it’s disgusting behavior… but I also know that some of you understand and know it was the right thing to do!

Pulling into our driveway, I quickly checked my clothes for orange crumbs, grabbed an armload of bags and then headed inside. “Hi Honey!” I said, plopping the grocery bags up on the counter. My wife Lori stopped doing her bookwork and looked at me over her glasses. “So, did you enjoy your Cheetos?” My mouth dropped open. (I mean really! How does she do that?) I started to protest, but then I realized that I was sporting bright orange fingers and lips.

Now, I can argue the merits of a case with the best of them, but trying to justify eating an entire bag of dog biscuits… I mean… Cheetos, is apparently beyond my capacity, so all that would come out of my throat was a choked and feeble “errr…Ahhhh.” Of course our dogs… “Mans Best Friends”… were sitting there next to Lori (traitors!) with their smiley dog faces, anxiously waiting to see how I would earn my Cheetos.

Since I am no longer capable of walking on my hands without serious injury to myself or the furniture, I am happy to report that the dogs and I have come to an agreement.

We shook paws on it and then celebrated by sharing a biscuit… the crunchy kind.

Driven by a Memory

“BORN IN THE USA!!!!!” (What?? Why is Bruce Springsteen screaming at me?) Waking up from a deep sleep, I roll over and switch the obnoxious clock radio off and check the time… 6:20 in the morning again. Time to go to work, again. Sitting up in bed I rub my eyes and think about how many times I’ve done this… same time, every workday, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. I stretch and get up, tripping over the dog and stubbing my toe on the dresser, cursing as I hop with one foot in my jeans on the way to the bathroom… again.

Staring at my morning face in the mirror (ugh) I think about how lucky I am to be able to work and to have work to do. But, I know that I am compelled to do so, not entirely by survival, money or gain… but by an incident that is carved deep into my mind and heart.

I think that, although it has remained hidden from their memory, many people have been crafted by an incident in their distant past. But I have never forgotten the moment when the force that would drive me through life was put into place. For me, it is a force of nature, like gravity, pulling me out of bed, to work, to yet another project, towards ever more responsibility. Causing me to place more weight on my shoulders, compelling me to stay perpetually busy and at work in order to feel complete and content.

I was three years old when I took a small piece of wire and stuck it into an electrical socket. (No! That’s not what’s wrong with me!) Instead of electrocuting me the wire immediately melted, burning my small hand. I don’t have any memory of this incident, (probably the electrocution part) but my mother says that I kept my bandaged hand clenched tightly shut for weeks, so much so that she was afraid that it would never heal.

Soon after, my father was going to take me to work with him for the first time. I know that it’s pretty rare to remember something from when you were three, but it is a vivid memory that never fades, a movie that is always ready to rewind and play. I remember… my dad standing by his truck. I’m running towards him across the lawn as fast as I can. I feel the excitement, the joy and then… I trip and fall face first, catching myself on my burned hand. I sit up on the grass, clench my burned hand and cry. Then… as I watch, my angry, disappointed father gets into his truck and drives away to work without me. The mold was set at that moment. I would not get left behind again and I would spend the rest of my life, shrugging off injury, personal trauma and fatigue in order to get to work… I have always known why.

I have never held it against my father. He was a good man and driven by powerful forces of his own. And although I have talked about that day with my mother, I never discussed it with him. Strangely enough, my resulting manic work ethic has mostly served me pretty well over time, because thankfully I have learned (with the help of my wonderful wife, children and friends) to temper and control my compulsion, so that now I can actually relax on vacation, even periodically enjoying doing nothing, without the nagging guilt of not being at work.

Like many men, it is my father that, even though he has passed away, still remains the psychological fuel that drives me forward. But it is my mother, the person that worried over and healed the three-year-old boy with the burned hand and the broken heart, that has helped me to understand my father and who I am as a result.

So as I got to work this morning at 6:45 and begin figuring out how to do all that I have planned for the day, I know that it was my dad who gave me the power and fuel to drive myself as fast and as hard as I can go, but as I delete one task to allow time to have lunch with Lori and then schedule myself for a trip next month to the Keys with my wife and our friends, I know that it’s my Mom, who ever so subtly gave me the encouragement and ability to steer myself onto my own path to happiness.

Thanks Mom… Happy Mothers Day