This column ran in the February 1, 2015, edition of The St. Augustine Record:
It started almost five years ago, in the summer of 2010. I was moving to St. Augustine, fleeing what had been the scene of an ugly divorce. My daughters were in college. My son, who was 15 at the time, decided to stay in Atlanta with his dad.
While I understood that decision, I had a hard time coping with my prematurely empty nest. I sobbed while driving south on I-75. It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do, worse, indeed, than telling my children our family was splitting up. It was the kind of heartbreak you wouldn’t wish upon your second-grade bully or even Genghis Khan.
My son’s dog, the three-legged Australian shepherd named Pancho, came with me. He rode in quiet sympathy, occasionally nuzzling me from the back seat as if to say, “Don’t worry. He might be able to last a little while without you, but he’ll never be able to stand being away from his dog.”
And that’s how it started. Pancho became our translator.
I began texting pictures of Pancho to my son with the caption “I miss you” or “Wish you were here!” It was a way of safely telling my kid how I felt, for there was no way he would ever rebuff a message from Pancho. We went on like that for almost 18 months, using the dog to say how we felt.
My son came to live with me at the beginning of his junior year of high school, and he’s now a sophomore at Flagler College. I got a second shot at mothering — three bonus years — and for that I will always be grateful.
The funny thing is that we never stopped communicating through the dog. Let’s say my kid was going out for the evening. “Where ya goin’?” I’d ask in my Pancho voice, which was slightly deeper than my own and mimicked the cadence of Scooby Doo’s speech patterns. When I came in late from teaching, I’d ask Pancho, “Did he feed you?”
It was a stupid thing to ask, as if I trusted a dog who would look me in the eye and lie himself silly. He’d practically pretend to collapse from hunger.
The conversation went both ways. When I was out of town, my kid would text me a picture of Pancho. “When are you coming home?” was the standard caption. Once the line “Mr. Pouty cuz Mom left” accompanied a picture of the pup wearing a melancholy expression, his chin resting on crossed paws.
I even built a pool in our backyard because Pancho said he wanted one.
My son moved out of the house over the holidays. He’s now sharing an apartment with a friend from Flagler. Pancho watched as the boy’s bedroom furniture was being moved. He kept running into the empty bedroom as if he were trying to figure out what was happening. He slept with one of the kid’s old socks.
Pancho felt better when our boy promised that he would visit every day. Still, I’m not sure how to tell the dog that he has permanently moved out. I’m worried that Pancho won’t handle this well. He might mope around the house, perhaps even howl a bit.
I’m afraid Pancho is really going to miss this kid.
This is my St. Augustine Record column for December 28, 2014. You can also link to it here.
There are things — and sometimes even people — in this world that can get used up and messed up to the point of being a total loss. You can’t rehabilitate them.
Years ago, my in-laws came home from a nine-day trip to find that my sister-in-law’s cat had been locked in their custom conversion van the whole time. The cat, weak and dehydrated, was ultimately okay, but they couldn’t give that van away. That’s the kind of totaled I’m talking about.
A piece of chewing gum is another example. Once it’s used up, all you can do is throw it out, swallow it or stick it to the underside of a table in McDonald’s.
A box of hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts, once cooled, will never be the same. Rehabilitation is simply impossible.
My grandfather is nearly 92. Earlier this month, he suffered a heart attack, a stroke and a severe concussion when he fell and planted his forehead into a wall.
His doctor calls him “rehabable.”
I like that word. It means there’s still hope.
Granddad is part of the generation that holds out hope for things that should be tossed out. The evidence is all over his house — in a pencil worn down to a one-inch nub that still has a few scribbles left in it, in a pair of holey pajamas with one more night’s sleep in them. It’s in his favorite chair, an orange corduroy lounger that may or may not be held together in some places with duct tape.
After a few days in the hospital, he moved to an assisted living facility. We took his favorite chair and other items from his home to his new room.
The saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” isn’t exactly true. He’s weaker, and his memory flicks on and off like a lightning bug on a summer night.
What he recalls best is the fact he’s not at home. And it’s what he hopes for. “I just want to get out of here and go home,” he says, almost every hour.
Yet, I’m not so sure he’s talking about a brick house in Morrow, Ga. In fact, I’m fairly certain that’s not the home he’s longing for.
And as much as I love the inherent hope of the word “rehabable,” I’m no longer convinced that getting back to the way he was before is really in Granddad’s best interest.
I don’t mean he’s used up, worn out and totaled. That suggests depletion. His strength isn’t really gone. It’s all been transferred to us — his children, grandchildren, and even great-grandkids. And although his memory is failing, we will remember it all.
Granddad grew up in a place called Texas Valley, in the corner of northeast Georgia. Texas Valley people have some peculiar phrases. For instance, someone who’s sick is said to be “puny.” An extremely thin person might get called “wormy.” When you’re tired, you’re “give out.” Complete fatigue is being “plumb give out.”
Give out is exhaustion from doing your best, from giving everything you’ve got. It’s something to be proud of. Granddad’s not totaled, and he’s not used up. He’s just plumb give out.
I know I’ll be a total wreck when it happens, but I hope he gets to go home soon.
My St. Augustine Record column from December 5, 2015, reprinted below:
I have a pair of geriatric dachshunds who have managed to cram quite a bit of excitement into their brief lives.
For starters, Laverne and Shirley are on the vicious animals list in Henry County, Ga., for biting a tax assessor several years ago. During their wild and untamed youth, they pillaged and plundered every package ever delivered to my house. I pulled into our driveway one day to find them playing tug-of-war with a wine-colored cashmere sweater I’d ordered from Talbot’s. Once, they consumed a mail-order package of sweet potato pancake mix. We found them lying in the yard, bloated and inert.
Laverne and Shirley have slowed down in the past couple of years. These days, they get their excitement from chasing lizards. They mostly perch on the back of my sofa to monitor movement outside the house – the UPS truck driving by, perhaps, or a leaf blowing across the pool deck. On some mornings, they feel obliged to let me know when the pool pump turns on and the water begins to move.
They’ve also started engaging in a curious new habit. Laverne and Shirley like to lick the air.
The first time I saw them with their noses pointed toward the ceiling, their tongues flicking, licking nothing, it reminded me of a joke often told by Lewis Grizzard, the late Southern humorist. His version was slightly off-color, so I can’t tell it just like Grizzard told it, but the joke involves two good ol’ boys, Bubba and Earl, watching a dog doing a bit of inappropriate licking.
Bubba elbows Earl and says, “I wish I could do that.”
Earl responds, “Bubba, that dog would bite ‘chu!”
Laverne and Shirley’s air licking was funny for a few days, but when it became apparent that they weren’t going to stop, I got worried.
I Googled “dachshunds licking air,” and found out it’s something many dachshunds do. People have posted YouTube videos of the spectacle.
Someone even created a forum for people to speculate on why dachshunds lick the air. One person likened the behavior to that of a snake, with the tongue performing a sort of extra-sensory smelling. Another suggested that it could be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Someone else surmised that licking the air is a sign of anxiety.
Worried that my dogs are, well, worried, I began searching for ways to make Laverne and Shirley’s lives less traumatic.
I started by trying to identify potential stressors. What, I asked myself, would make me nervous if I were an elderly dachshund?
That question was hard to answer. For starters, Laverne and Shirley live at the beach. They have no mortgage. They have a housekeeper, a chef and a chauffeur.
They have free health care, job security and an enviable retirement plan. They’re practically federal employees.
I finally consulted the ultimate authority — Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer. He said that licking the air is a sign of boredom in dogs.
Apparently, what we need is a visit from the St. Johns County tax assessor.
At any rate, I no longer worry about my dachshunds. It seems they’re going to keep ticking right along. When being bored and nervous about nothing causes them to inappropriately lick the air, I’ll just watch. And wish I could do that.
This column appeared in The St. Augustine Record November 16, 2014. I’m reprinting it here for those who might have missed it:
Last week, Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Viking who was facing child abuse charges, accepted a plea deal that keeps him out of jail. The case has kindled a huge debate over spanking.
I’ve thought about it a lot lately, and I can’t say how I’d discipline if I had my children to raise over again.
I can’t imagine hurting a child, yet I don’t quite buy the modern notion of our offspring as demigods for whom a rational discussion will suffice in lieu of discipline.
I’m not even sure where that idea originated. As a mom, I found toddlers to be irrational and unreasonable. In fact, I think terrorists learn their negotiating tactics from 3-year-olds.
Referring to the Peterson case, Mel Robbins, a commentator and legal analyst for CNN, advocated “education, mentoring and conflict-resolution training” as the most effective methods for developing positive behaviors in children.
This woman must not be from the South. Every good Southern mama knows that choosing your own hickory switch effectively changes behavior. Those slow steps through the yard provide adequate time to contemplate a misdeed. Sometimes, picking the switch is punishment enough.
Robbins calls all spanking child abuse. I can’t quite share that sentiment. For one thing, by that definition, I should be locked up next to Adrian Peterson. My mom would be serving 20 to life.
My parents were strict. Complaining about what Mom cooked would earn a warning from Dad like, “You’ll eat those eggs, or I’ll crisp your bacon.” When I was a kid, Mom kept a penal code posted on the refrigerator. Next to each misdeed listed was the predetermined punishment for that particular crime. Since there were no hickory trees in our yard, Mom used a rubber spatula.
The best I can remember, fighting with my brother or sister warranted 10 licks. Talking back to Mom meant swallowing a spoonful of vinegar. The catch-all crime was the haughty spirit, worth a whopping 20 licks.
While I can’t say how I would approach discipline if I had young children now, I’m pretty certain what Mom would do. There are clues in the way her cantankerous Chihuahua, Bambi, behaves.
A couple of weeks ago, while my parents were gone for the evening, I stopped by their house to walk Bambi.
When I tried to put her collar around her neck, the dog bared her teeth and snapped at me. She scooted under the dining room table. Every time I even looked at her, she snarled. It looked to me like a haughty spirit.
I tattled on Bambi the next day. But Mom just laughed. Then I listened in amazement as she said the key to dealing with Bambi is speaking gently while putting on her collar. The woman who could have written a manifesto on spanking was telling me I should have tried reasoning with a Chihuahua.
There are no hickories in Mom’s yard, only palm trees. She doesn’t need them. She can wave a palm branch at her little demigod doggie six ways to Sunday, knowing that the children she raised turned into decent human beings who are, at times, even reasonable.
This column appeared in the October 5, 2014 edition of The St. Augustine Record. I’m reprinting it here for those who are unable to access it on the paper’s site. I apologize for the inconvenience, and, as always, thanks for reading!
I turned down a marriage proposal last week. Some of the people in my life think it a foolish choice. It was, after all, the first proposal I’d received in over two decades.
I was in Atlanta staying with a friend from my old neighborhood, a nice country club community in the suburbs that is home to several Atlanta-based rappers. I was out for a walk one morning when a very expensive Mercedes-Benz passed me. Its driver waved, and I waved back.
The car stopped. The driver’s window rolled down, and a man stuck his head out. He yelled something, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.
I pulled my ear buds out of my ears. “What?”
“ARE YOU MARRIED?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
He smiled, shrugged and said, “I would have married you myself.” Then he rolled up his window and drove away.
When I told my kids the story, their responses were not what I expected. I described the young man, and they told me that he is a famous rapper. Then they chided me for squandering a chance to be the next Atlanta “Housewife.”
“Why did you lie to him?” my son even asked. “I heard he’s a nice guy.”
“I’m sure he is, but I don’t want to move back to Atlanta,” I shot back. But that wasn’t the real reason I turned him down.
Although I can’t say his rapper name with a straight face, the greater problem is the fact that this man is in his 20s. I know there are happily married couples with bigger age differences, but I think that being born 20 years apart means we come from different worlds. What could we possibly have in common?
Certainly not music. I can’t understand most rap lyrics. “Bam bam, jam jam, so tan can do a handstand” makes no sense to me. But I knew what the Oak Ridge Boys meant when they sang “Giddy Up, Oom Poppa Oom Poppa Mow Mow/High-ho Silver, away.”
Rappers are a little too ostentatious for my taste. Yes, Elvis had his Jungle Room, but he never had a giant picture of himself painted on the side of his tour bus.
Today’s rappers are fond of collaborations, which is a big word for “duets.” These duets will never match the greatness of Julio and Willie’s “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” or even Johnny Carson’s spoof of that duet. Carson. Now, that was great television.
Today, we have reality television. The rapper is part of a reality show called “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta.” If reality television is people dressing in ridiculous costumes and doing bizarre things for money, I suppose “The Price is Right” and “Let’s Make a Deal” were my generation’s versions of it. But those shows just seemed better.
I’ll admit things might not have changed as much as I think they have. Still, what would I have to talk about with a man who wasn’t even born when Elvis died?
Although my sentimentality about the past could mean I’m throwing away my future, I can’t marry the rapper. I’d rather hold out for what Carol Merrill has behind door number three, Monty. I hope it’s not a canned ham and a ferret.
This is why I’m contesting my grandmother’s will:
I’m really hoping it’s Willie Nelson behind door number 3:
My dad and my dog: