This week, Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow and her rockstar husband, Chris Martin, announced that they are divorcing.  Excuse me – that’s incorrect. They called their decision to dissolve their marriage “conscious uncoupling.”

These are the same people who named a kid “Apple,” so it’s not shocking.  But call it what you will, Gwynnie, it’s still a dee-vorce.

Have you noticed how many euphemisms we throw around on a daily basis?  What was the plain old dog pound when I was growing up became “animal control.”  Now it’s “animal care and protective services.”    Getting fired is now a “workforce imbalance correction.”  And being “intensely convivial” is an upgrade from “three sheets to the wind,” which really means being so drunk you couldn’t pronounce any of those words correctly.

Several years ago, I got off of the Rockin’ Rollercoaster at Disneyworld and almost stepped in a protein spill.  That’s what the Disney princesses call vomit.

Euphemisms are a way of softening words so they don’t sound as bad as they really are.   We do it all the time – people “pass away” rather than die.  We “put down” a beloved pet.  The toilet is called a “restroom.”

When I was a kid, the waste treatment plant (there’s another one!) in the county where I lived began taking human waste (okay, poop) and turning it into small pellets that could be used as fertilizer.   It was called sludge, and it was free to anyone willing to go get it.  My dad did, and it’s a long story, but it might or might not have led to my own conscious non-coupling many years later.  You can read about that here.

These days, that sludge has been renamed.  Now called “bisolids,” those pellets are no longer free.  A bag of GroCo, a mixture of sawdust and Washington State biosolids called “Loop,” costs around $5.  A dump truck load large enough to spread that product one inch deep over an acre would cost over $4,000.  Do you see what they did there?  They renamed it, and people were willing to pay for it.  That human excrement began flying off the shelves.

I’m not sure people are buying what Gwyneth Paltrow is selling, though.  It feels like her renaming of divorce makes her just a little bit better than the rest of us dee-vor-cees, doesn’t it?   It’s as if divorcing is for the unaware and unenlightened.  When you have your shit together, as she so obviously does, it becomes “conscious uncoupling.”

And she wonders why she couldn’t get elected if she ran for animal containment official.

 

The people who owned my house before I bought it had the ridiculous notion that if one of something is a good thing, ten of that thing is even better.  While that logic might be true with, say, jelly beans or dollars, it does not extrapolate to things like children, time in a tanning bed, or smoke detectors.

My house, when I purchased it, had eight – eight! – smoke detectors on the upper level alone.  Before I moved to St. Augustine full time, it seemed that every time I came to stay, a smoke detector would decide in the middle of the night that its battery was running low.  Do you know how frustrating it is trying to figure out which alarm has the dead battery when there are four smoke detectors in one hallway and the shrieks are two minutes apart?  For years, I despised the previous owners.  I couldn’t understand that level of paranoia.  Were they worried about their three-year-old son smoking in bed?  But this week, I think I know what happened.

My son is home for Spring Break, and yesterday, I spent the day in Cocoa Beach signing books.  He called me around lunchtime to say that Pancho, our three-legged Australian shepherd, was acting strange.  One of the smoke detectors in the upstairs hallway (there are only three in that hallway now because I successfully disabled one of them) was shrieking because its battery was low, and Pancho apparently thought those noises meant the world was ending.

I told my son to look in the kitchen drawer for a 9-volt battery, but when I got home four hours later, he wasn’t home, Pancho was outside, and the smoke detector was still making noise.  I changed the battery and then tried to bring Pancho inside, but he refused.  It took a bag of Lay’s Kettle Chips to lure him back into the house.  (Incidentally, the dachshunds, who bark at the pool when the pump turns on and the water begins to move, were unbothered by the severe shrieks coming from the smoke detector).

I told the story to my parents at breakfast, and my dad said that the same thing happened at their house last week.  My mom was at a neighbor’s, and her dog, Bambi, the corpulent Chihuahua, began to tremble and started cowering behind the sofa in fear.  “I couldn’t hear the noise,” he said, “So I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her.”

Did you catch that?  My dad COULDN’T HEAR the equivalent of thirty-three middle school girls catching a glimpse of Justin Bieber.

Two years ago, we went to see the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary concert.  The only two people in the whole amphitheater not standing and singing along were my dad and a guy tethered to a wheel chair by an oxygen tank.  Dad was sitting with his hands behind his ears trying to make out the words.

After hearing Dad’s story, I decided to be kinder to my home’s previous owners.  Obviously, they went overboard installing smoke detectors because someone in the house was nearly deaf.

My daughter is graduating from New York University at the end of May.  The ceremony will be held in Yankee Stadium, and Martin Scorsese is to be the commencement speaker.  We’ve all told my dad he’s not allowed to go on the trip unless he gets a hearing aid, but his response is much like the lines to a Jimmy Buffett song – “losing his hearing, but he don’t care what most people say.”*  He just shrugs and says he doesn’t miss much by not being able to hear.

But this is different.  Doesn’t he want to hear Martin Scorsese’s words of wisdom to the graduating class?  Or the conversation during our family’s celebration dinner?  If not that, surely he wants to be able to follow along when we all go to a Broadway show.  Hell, at this point, I’d just be glad for him to hear the fireworks at the NYU graduation.

The problem is that he is as likely to get a hearing aid as a teenage boy is to change the battery in a smoke detector.  So please do me a favor.  If you think my dad should get a hearing aid before our trip to New York, would you leave a comment below encouraging him to do that?

If he won’t, we’ll have to spend the hearing aid money installing nine new smoke detectors in their house.

 

*From “He Went to Paris”

I walked into my parents’ house the other night, and, like every other time I walk through the door, my mom’s Chihuahua began simultaneously growling and trembling.

Bambi weighs 11 ½ pounds.  She’s an obese Chihuahua with a stripper name, and she’s also highly conflicted.  Bambi loves me because I am, after all, the one who plucked her from a shelter and set her into the loving arms of my mother, whom she adores.  But she also despises me because I often have Pancho, my three-legged Australian shepherd, with me, and she hates Pancho.

On this particular night, Pancho wasn’t with me.  And when Bambi started to growl, my mother got in her face and yelled, “BAH!”

The dog immediately stopped growling.  Then she retreated to her blanket.  And any time she stood up, my mom looked over, repeated the word “Bah,” and the dog instantly lay back down.  It was a miracle.

I went home and Googled “BAH!”  Apparently, it’s part of the BarkBuster dog training program, a way to establish yourself as the Alpha dog and command obedience from your dog.

I looked for a YouTube video, but when my dachshunds, Laverne and Shirley, heard other dogs, they began barking.

I decided to go for it.  “BAH!”  Shocked, they stopped barking.  Then they started again.

“BAH!”

This time, they were not impressed. Also, I’d disturbed their rest, so Shirley jumped off her perch atop the back of my sofa.  She began to wander around looking for a spot to pee, even though she’d been outside just ten minutes earlier.

“BAH!” I yelled as she squatted on my rug.  She looked me in the eye and proceeded to pee.

“BAH!  BAH! BAH!”  I continued yelling as I scooped her up and put her outside.  Then she watched through the glass on the door as I blotted the mess with a paper towel and then poured salt on it to soak up what remained.

I’ve never been able to housetrain a dachshund.  It’s not because they’re dumb.  It’s because they don’t care to go to the potty outside.  In the house is easier.  The house is warmer and drier, and there’s no grass to tickle their ass.

Call me lazy, but I decided it’s just easier to replace a rug once a year than try to train a dachshund.  And I defy anyone to convince me otherwise.  In my lifetime, I’ve had about fifteen dachshunds as pets, and to date, I’m 0-15 when it comes to training a dachshund not to pee in the house.

To “Bah” I say “Humbug.”  It’s aversion therapy, and it just doesn’t work on dachshunds.

On the other hand, I can bribe dachshunds to do just about anything short of standing on their heads by offering them fried eggs.  I just don’t have the time to fry an egg every time they need to pee.

Today is Sunday, and in honor of the Lord’s Day, I offer my version of the Doxology, written for Laverne and Shirley:

Praise eggs, from which all blessings flow

Praise omelets, all creatures here below

Praise cheese scrambles, ye heavenly host

And serve them with a side of toast.

Once upon a time, for about ten minutes, there was a beautiful princess.   She lived with her family in a house under the Atlanta airport flight path.  Her father pastored a church and kept bees on the side, which put him in perpetual danger of being stung for disturbing a hive.

As stated before, this princess felt pretty once.  She was sixteen and prone to gazing into the mirror lovingly until her little brother or sister pounded on the bathroom door and demanded access.  But one morning, she awoke to find her face covered in flesh-covered flat dots.  They were the size of confetti quins used for decorating cupcakes.

“Flat warts,” Dr. Peng, the dermatologist, announced.  “You kiss flat frog.”  It was a statement and not a question.

He left the room, returning after a few minutes with a solution that he said would burn the warts off of her face.  They should have been alarmed, the princess and her mother, by the word “burn.”  But it was a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a time when the princess still believed that doctors were infallible.

The medicine did burn away the flat warts.  But it did so by causing huge blisters to appear on the princess’s beautiful face.  The blisters oozed and itched, and the girl understood for the first time in her young life what was meant by the phrase “the treatment is worse than the cure.”  When she looked into the mirror, what she saw was hideous, and she knew in her heart that God was punishing her for being so prideful in her appearance.

The warts that had been burned fell off, and the blisters gradually healed.  But new warts grew in their place until her face was completely covered.  Since there was no Internet to Google “remedy for flat warts,” all she had to consult was old wives and their tales.  She sorted through stories of banana peels, raw potatoes, apple cider vinegar, and even duct tape being used to treat warts.  Since couldn’t go to school with duct tape on her face, she opted for large doses of Vitamin A, a sensible-sounding folk cure for warts.  Her mother, the queen, settled upon large doses of prayer.

One morning about three months after the first warts appeared, the princess woke and proceeded to the bathroom for her morning ablutions.  She looked into the mirror and saw that the warts had completely disappeared from her face overnight.  Just as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone.  It was a miracle!

And for many years, the princess, believing her pride to be the source of the flat warts, was afraid to even wonder if she was pretty.  It changed, however, when she had two daughters of her own.  Seeing each for the first time, she understood that they were beautiful simply because they existed and that there was no shame in savoring their beauty.

That, and she finally Googled “flat warts” to find that one can catch them by kissing another person but not by looking in the mirror.

In the early morning hours of December 19, six days before Christmas, a makeshift raft washed up on the beach near my home.  More specifically, the remnants of a homemade raft  — large fiberglass cylinders, boards, and rope — made it to shore.  My parents were walking the beach early that morning, and they saw the wreckage.

The fiberglass cylinders had the words “flotation device” printed on them.  The boards had apparently been nailed across the top of the cylinders, and the whole thing was secured with rope.  Given the size of the cylinders, my mom says, the raft was obviously built to carry several people.

The next day, the St. Augustine Police Department sent an email asking residents to look for, I guess, anyone resembling Tom Sawyer or Tom Hanks.  Their description of the wreckage was sad:  “There were a few pieces still partially lashed with a 100-yard debris trail.”  The police lieutenant concluded, “. . . I can’t imagine there was anyone on the raft that safely made it to shore.”

The email didn’t give much more information.  In fact, it raised more questions than it answered.  One small article about the raft appeared in the local paper, and that, to me, is also sad. Surely those who built the raft and pushed away from shore left behind loved ones waiting to hear that they safely made landfall in Florida.

The police speculated that the raft hadn’t been in the water very long and had most likely floated up the Gulf Stream from the Bahamas.  I wonder, though.  Lashing together several “flotation devices” and trusting them to land you safely in a new life is essentially an act of desperation.  It means that they were betting that the unknown was better than the unbearable.  I’m not sure what’s so unbearable about Bimini.  Then again, there are different definitions of desperation.

I can’t help wondering about the people who built this raft, then hopped aboard and pushed away from shore.  What were they leaving behind?  Where were they hoping to land?

Most likely, we’ll never know the answers.  But I’ve come up with a few possibilities.

In his 2004 Skinny Dip, Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen has his protagonist, Joey Perrone, thrown over the side of a cruise ship by her cheating husband.  She survives the fall and eventually washes up near Key Biscayne on a bale of marijuana.  She keeps her survival a secret and spends the rest of the book haunting her husband.

Several packages of cocaine washed up on our beach a couple of months ago.  The two cases are obviously not related, but I suppose there’s a possibility that the December rafters pushed off from the Bahamas with the intention of smuggling drugs into the States.

Speaking of smuggling, Huck Finn, Mark Twain’s youthful adventurer, spends a good portion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on a raft trying to help an escaped slave, Jim, reach a free state.  Huck Finn says, “It’s lovely to live on a raft.  We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened. . . We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down.  Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest” (19.5).

Perhaps these recent rafters weren’t so much desperate to leave their home as they were fallen stars who had been thrown out of their nest.

Then there’s the explanation that resonates the most with me, that the rafters survived some sort of wreckage, and they floated along on something that would hopefully hold until help arrived.  Remember the movie Titanic, and how passengers and crew are depicted floating on wreckage from the ship?   I don’t mean there was a literal shipwreck in December.  But perhaps the people who made the raft were using the ruins of their former lives to transport them to a new one.

In a way, that’s how I arrived in St. Augustine.  I was fleeing the heartbreak of a broken marriage and ruined dreams, and there were days when I didn’t know if I would survive. For a couple of years, every time I drove down here from Atlanta, I brought something  — dishes, pictures, small pieces of furniture – with me in my car.  Then I sold the house in Atlanta, keeping only the things that had the most meaning for me.  I used my family and friends as flotation devices, found a way to lash together the remnants of my former life, and held on tight.  Thankfully, I landed in a new life that makes me very happy.

In one way or another, I suppose, we all eventually wash up on some new shore. We’re all refugees in the sense that life often involves leaving something behind in search of what’s better.  The difference between sinking or floating often depends upon the quality of our flotation devices.  It’s about how well we build something out of our wreckage that can keep our heads above water until we land on solid ground.

Last week, my kids were discussing a friend’s new romance and the couple’s substantial age difference.  The girl is in her twenties, and the man is over forty.  My son said, “He even looks older than you, Mom.”

“Thanks.”

He hastened to explain by saying, “I mean, I know how old you are, and he looks older than that.”

Again, thanks.

The conversation reminded me of how old forty seemed when I was in my twenties.  I thought about how quickly I’d arrived at an age that not long ago seemed so old.

A few days later, I drove to Atlanta to spend some time with my Granddad, who’s nearly ninety-one.  During my drive, I contemplated how old ninety seems and how, if I get there, I’ll most likely be shocked at how fast that happened. I even wondered how I’ll feel about my age when I’m closing in on the century mark.

I know how my granddad feels about his age.  “I never thought I’d live this long after Glennis died,” he said to me on the first evening I spent with him.  “I really don’t know why the Lord’s keeping me here.”  He was sitting in his favorite chair, an orange corduroy lounger that he bought about the time I graduated from high school.  His feet were propped up on a TV tray table to keep fluid from collecting in his legs, and he had a space heater on either side of him.  We were watching reruns of The Waltons, the classic show set during the years my grandfather was a child and young adolescent.

My kids, by contrast, are in a hurry to get just a little bit older.  They don’t want to be as old as I am, of course, but they all express an eagerness to get out of college and get on with their lives.  I remember having those feelings, of thinking that my life would really begin when I got out of high school.  Then it was when I graduated from college, which changed to when I got married.  Looking back, I’m pretty sure life started for me when all of my kids were potty trained.

The next morning, I woke at seven and walked into a smoky kitchen.  I was alarmed at first, but then I remembered The Great Gravy Debate.  I remember my grandparents arguing the merits of Smith gravy versus Adams gravy.  As long as Grandmom was alive, her family’s recipe for gravy won out.  But now that she’s gone, the darker, slightly charred-tasting Adams gravy reigns supreme in Granddad Adams’s house.  Adams gravy requires frying sausage patties on high heat.  Once again, Granddad had everything under control.

But I was also concerned that he was even frying sausage because ten days’ earlier, I had ordered a VIP Gift Package from the Dillard House in North Georgia for him.  Why wasn’t he frying the bacon or country ham I’d sent.  My mom’s mom had called me to say she’d received hers, so I asked Granddad if he’d gotten a package.

“No,” he said, cracking a couple of eggs into the skillet.

“Then I’m going to light them up.”  I pulled out my iPhone and sent a quick email to Dillard House customer service asking them to check on my order.

We sat down to eat, and he said the blessing.  Then he looked at me kind of funny and said, “I wonder if it got delivered to the front porch.”

Granddad’s front porch is hidden from the street by a hedge of boxwoods that stand about four feet high.  He enters and exits the house from the side door, so unless he’s looking for a package, he would never know if one had been delivered.

He stood up from the breakfast table, grabbed his walker, and made his way to the front door.  I opened the blind covering the kitchen window and, looking to my left, saw two packages.

He was still struggling with the front door, so I stepped in to help.  I pushed and pulled on the door, trying to turn the key stuck in the deadbolt lock, but I couldn’t budge it.  Granddad took over again and finally managed to get the door open.  I dragged the packages inside.  He pulled out his pocketknife and opened a Styrofoam container with four Omaha steaks.  The dry ice in the container was melted, and the steaks had thawed after a couple of sixty-degree December afternoons in Georgia.  But Granddad laughed when I suggested they should be thrown out.  “Naw, they’re still good,” he said.

I sent a second email to the Dillard House apologizing for my mistake while he unpacked the VIP Gift basket.  The package was bigger than I’d expected it would be, and after breakfast, as we stood in his kitchen slicing that 16-pound country ham, Granddad asked me why I would send a person who lived alone a ham that size.

When we were finished, he held up the bone and said, “If my mama were here, she’d save this to cook with.”  I asked him if he wanted me to put it in the freezer for him to use for soup.  He chuckled and said, “No.”

It reminded me of all the times over the years when he would hear someone reminiscing about the past. Granddad would always stop the conversation by saying, “I remember ‘The Good Ole’ Days,’ and they weren’t so good.  Now is better.”

Most likely, he didn’t want that hambone because it reminded him of the way people ate during the Great Depression.  He’s not much interested in the past, I guess. Plus, he had four fine Omaha steaks in his freezer.

I thought about how we spend our lives looking back or looking ahead while, the whole time, we’re completely unaware of the treasure that’s already been delivered.  All we have to do is open the door.

And I think we open the door when we remember that now is always better.

My three kids are spread out across the country.  My older daughter is in Manhattan preparing to graduate from New York University.  My second daughter studies neuroscience at the University of Colorado, and my son recently left for college in Tallahassee, Florida.  This Thanksgiving Day, for the first time in several years, we will all be together, and for that, I am humbly thankful.

My kids called last Thursday to put in their orders for the feast.  Their main concern is that there be no oysters in the dressing.  Speaking of stuffing, they asked, will I even be able to make it, given that our family is gluten free?  And this was the final mandate: Lauren, the neuroscientist, proposes activating some new neurons in my brain via the challenge of deep frying the turkey.

I promised oyster-free cornbread dressing, which is gluten free if one uses cornbread made without flour, which I believe is God’s original recipe for manna.   And I roundly rejected the idea of frying the turkey because I don’t want to burn down my house.

Then they said something that made my ears sizzle.  They said, “We’ve been talking about how we’re all so stressed at school that we can’t wait to come home and let Mom cook for us and just take care of us.”

My response to them was, “I’ve been working so hard lately that I was thinking you guys could come home and take care of me.”

The conversation took place while I was driving to Atlanta.  My grandfather was in the hospital, and I was on my way to see what I could do to care for him.  He’s nearly 91, and his doctors are predicting the imminent failure of a heart that’s endured the Great Depression, the horrors of liberating concentration camps at the end of World War Two, and the death of the woman he loved with every beat of that heart.

He was admitted to the hospital on Wednesday, and by noon on Thursday, when I walked into his room, the diuretics administered to flush out the fluid surrounding his heart had done miracles.  He was already grumbling about getting out and going home.  On Friday morning, I walked into his room at 7:15, and he was fully dressed and sitting in a chair that he had moved so he could face the door.  He had pulled all the monitors off of his chest, and his packed bag was waiting on his bed.

I’d brought him breakfast, but he said, “I’m not hungry.  I’m just ready to go home.”  When I suggested that he might as well eat while he was waiting, he pulled the bed tray around to the chair and ate.  Then, when his hospital breakfast arrived, he looked at the scrambled eggs, blueberry muffin, and fresh strawberries and said, “I’d better mess this up a little so they’ll think I ate.”  He ate every bite of that second breakfast, and that’s when I knew for sure Granddad was back.

His cardiologist released him at nine that morning, but we still had to wait for his primary care physician to see him.  By three, after repeated calls to the doctor that received no response, we decided the chances of a doctor showing up on a Friday afternoon or evening were not good.

When you’re on the backside of ninety years old, you don’t have time to waste watching afternoon television in a tiny hospital room with bad lighting.  So my brother went to the nurses’ station and found a wheelchair.  Granddad pulled the IV port out of his wrist, then settled into that chair, and we set the captive free.  My brother noted that it was a break worthy of The Shawshank Redemption.

As I drove the getaway car north on Interstate 75, Granddad laughed about busting out of that hospital.  Then he said, “I wish I wasn’t causing everyone so much trouble.”

The man fought in Germany and in the Pacific to protect us.  He has fixed numerous washers, dryers,  dishwashers and lawn mowers for the members of my family over the years. He bought me a piano when I was seven.  He let my family live rent-free in his house when my husband was starting a business.  And he took me to Shoney’s for hot fudge cakes when I was a kid just because he knew how much I loved them.

I told him it was no trouble, that I wanted to be there.  He said, “I need to just go ahead and die.  That would be better for everybody.”

“Not for me, it wouldn’t.”  I could hardly get the words out because I was crying.

He let me collect myself, and then he said, “Well, I’m going to try to hold out until the Rapture, and then we can all go together.”

We got back to his house, and I made him a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of canned soup for dinner.  He wouldn’t let me clean up the kitchen.  After he had done the dishes and settled into his favorite chair, I told him I was going to eat dinner with a friend and that I would be back by nine.

When I walked into his house at nine, he was still sitting in that chair.  He looked at his watch to confirm that I had made curfew and grinned.  He told me he’d been watching a television evangelist who was predicting that the fourth blood moon, foretelling the return of Christ and end of the world, would take place in 2015.  “I think I can hold on ‘til then,” Granddad said.  And then he told me he was going to bed.

My kids are coming home for Thanksgiving hoping for good food and TLC.  I can’t wait to dish both out because I know how good it feels to have someone take care of me.

But I draw the line at deep frying a turkey.

My twin nieces used to keep a list of people who had done something to deserve their ire.  And it’s never taken much to make the list.  My son got himself permanently on the bad list, for example, simply by refusing to tell them how to spell his name.

We all keep a mental bad list, I suppose.  But these girls had an actual notebook with a page in it titled “Bad List.”  I never had that strike on my permanent record, but I made a total stranger’s bad list this week.

A friend and I went to dinner Monday evening.  Mondays in our tiny tourist town are often slow, so we wandered around a bit before finding a suitable place that was open.  The little restaurant had tables set up on the sidewalk, and since it was a beautiful evening, we asked a waiter if we could sit outside.

“Of course!” he said, pointing us toward the only empty table.

I walked over to our table and pulled out the heavy iron chair, accidentally bumping it against the empty chair of the table behind us.   I sat down, and as I scooted myself closer to the table, the feet of the chair screeched across the concrete.  I was just opening the menu when I heard someone say, “You woke my baby!”

I turned around to find that the woman seated alone at the table behind me was talking to me.  I said, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“I said you woke my baby.”  I looked at the chair I’d bumped, expecting to see a baby in a tiny carrier.  The chair was empty.  Completely confused, I looked up at the woman, and started to say, “What baby?”

She pointed under the table and said, “My dog was sound asleep, and you woke him up.”

My eyebrows might have shot up past my hairline.  And I might have rolled my eyes before I muttered a quick “Sorry?” and turned back to my menu.

The woman kept talking.  She said something along the lines of how people should be more careful, and then she began talking to her dog: “I know. That loud noise scared you. I’m sorry that woman woke you up, but it’s okay now.  You can go back to sleep.  Just close your eyes and go to sleep.”

And she wouldn’t shut up.  For the next ten or fifteen minutes, she talked nonstop to the little white mop of a dog sitting under her table about going to back sleep, but Rip Van Winkle himself couldn’t have slept through all that yapping.

She finally finished her dinner and asked the waiter for the check.  I noted with satisfaction the scrape of her chair on the concrete as she pushed back from the table.  And then I watched her walk away from the restaurant.  She had that dog on its back, cradling it to her breast like one would hold a baby.

I’ve been thinking about that woman all week. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t help but believe she has been deeply wounded by people she cared about, and normal interactions with people somehow pick at the scab.  You see, it’s okay to be crazy about dogs (cats, maybe not so much!), but you cross into crazy when you’re unable to have a relationship or even an intelligent conversation with another being who isn’t completely covered in fur.

My friend Martha was recently flying from Roanoke, Virginia, to Louisville, Kentucky, and happened to witness the spectacle of a young woman attempting to get her “therapy bunny” through security without removing the rabbit from its cage.  When TSA inspectors insisted that she take the animal out of its cage or run it through the airport scanners, the girl pitched a fit.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of service and therapy animals.  My dog, Pancho, is a therapy dog who regularly visits the VA Nursing Home here in St. Augustine.  But I don’t think that people who use animals in place of human interaction are actually doing themselves any favors.  Animals don’t question us, and they will never look us right in the eye and say, “You’re as crazy as a shithouse mouse.”  People will, and most of us, I think, need that kind of feedback in our lives every once in a while. Relationships with people are the sandpaper that smoothes away our rough edges.

So even though I currently live with alone with a pair of defiant dachshunds and a three-legged Australian shepherd, I actively seek out human interaction.  Because I come from a line of people notorious for cutting people off, I occasionally need people to tell me when a confrontation is in order and when I should just let sleeping dogs lie.

My dad and my three-legged dog are kindred souls.  It’s not because Pancho is missing a leg and Dad limps because of pinched nerves in his spine.  Neither is it because both are despised by Bambi, my mom’s obese Chihuahua.  Or because Dad’s specialty is ribs, and Pancho adores ribs.

Every time my dad sees Pancho, he pats my dog on the head and says, “You’re a good dog, but the only problem is that there’s not much call for good dogs these days.”  Pancho looks up at my dad, tongue hanging out of his mouth, and cocks his ears as if to say that’s exactly what he’s been thinking.

They’re a perfect pair, my dad and my dog, because they both know what it’s like to shepherd the unwilling.

For the first 35 years of my life, Dad was a pastor.  He preached an average of three times each week for all of those years, yet he was never able to work himself out of a job.  Just as often as not, people listened to what he had to say, put twenty bucks in the plate, then shook his hand and said “good sermon” before racing to the Piccadilly.  Then they went home and did the exact same thing they’d done the week before and the week before that.  You’d think that if a preacher were doing a decent job, his flock would begin to dwindle because they wouldn’t require the same level of guidance as they matured.  But that’s not the nature of church congregations. Or people.  The proof?  That church is bigger now than it’s ever been.

Pancho is an Australian shepherd whose flock is a pair of defiant dachshunds named Laverne and Shirley.  You’d think that at 10 and 8 years old, those girls would be slap out of new ways to get themselves into trouble.  But their kibble-sized brains are creative.  Pancho’s work is never done, and it’s a thankless job.  He can pull them out of the pool and set their feet on firm ground, and they will snarl at him as thanks for saving them.

Occasionally, Dad and Pancho’s flocks overlap.  When my sister’s kids are in town, both try to herd that pack.  Dad mostly uses the verbal and bribery-based methods of kid herding.  Pancho relies on circling them and pulling at their shirts.  So far, neither has had much success.

A few years ago, I went out of town and asked Dad to look after my dogs.  Laverne and Shirley got out of the fence and took off down the street toward the Publix with my dad chasing after them.  Pancho watched from inside the fence as if to say, it’s harder than it looks, isn’t it?

The retired preacher now refers to Laverne and Shirley as the two “little shits.”  Pancho just flops down on his beanbag chair with a snort.

I’ve been studying the nine Muses of Greek mythology, and I had to laugh when I read that Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, is depicted holding a shepherd’s staff. Throughout the ages, it seems, if you’re trying to lead others — whether they be your own kids, a church congregation, or even a pair of dachshunds – you only come out intact if you have a sense of humor.

Yep, they’re kindred souls, my dad and my dog.  Two old shepherds with gimp legs who aren’t quite ready to be put out to pasture.

I’m re-reading Tom Sawyer.  It’s neither part of an assignment for my Ph.D., nor am I teaching it to my students at Flagler College.  I’m not even reading it for personal pleasure, although it is great fun.

I’m studying the great American classic because I need inspiration.  I got a snarky letter from my neighborhood association’s property manager, and I need to devise a clever response.

The letter says that the property manager’s job includes “monitoring the aesthetics of the community and enforcing the Covenants and Restrictions.”  Basically, I am in trouble because I have done nothing about the “courtesy” letter she sent three weeks ago pointing out that my fence gate needs painting.

Not the whole fence.  Just the 3-foot high gate in front of my house.

I walked outside and looked at the gate.  Sure enough, there were two half-dollar-sized spots where the paint had peeled off.  I looked across the alley at my neighbor’s house.  The railings on both the first- and second-floor balconies have been missing for three months.

I walked back inside and told my son I’d pay him to go to the hardware store, buy a quart of white paint and a paintbrush and take care of the gate.  He promised he would do it.  I threw away the “courtesy” letter and promptly forgot about the gate.

So did my Tom Sawyer.  But in fairness to my kid, he was busy packing to leave for college.   The gate didn’t get painted, and that, apparently, did not sit well with the woman charged with monitoring the aesthetics of the community.  Because I got a letter informing me that I was guilty of a “First Violation.”  I had failed, the letter said, to properly maintain my fence.

An accompanying sheet of paper was titled “ACTION TO SATISFY – 1ST VIOLATION.”  It had my name and address and the words “PLAN FOR REMEDY” followed by seven blank lines.

Here’s what I wrote as my PLAN FOR REMEDY:

I will sit in front of my gate holding a paintbrush and meditating on the painting process.  In time, a neighbor will walk by on his way to the beach and will say, “You working?”

“What do you call work?”

“That ain’t work?”

“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t.  All I know is, it suits me.”

When my neighbor begs to paint my gate, I will say, “Naw, the property manager of this neighborhood is pretty particular about this gate, so I’d better do it.”

My neighbor will begin pleading with me for the chance to paint my gate and will eventually offer to give me his surfboard in exchange.  I will hand him my brush with reluctance in my face but alacrity in my heart.  And while my neighbor sweats in the sun, this retired artist will sit on my front porch dangling my legs, munching an apple, and planning the slaughter of more innocents.

More neighbors will stop to look, but they will stay to paint.  By the end of the day, I will be literally rolling in wealth.  I’ll have the surfboard, a golf cart, a half-full bottle of gin, a pair of flip-flops, a cat with only four teeth, and a worn copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.  The gate will have several coats of white paint on it.  Unfortunately, every neighbor will be bankrupted by paying to paint my fence, so the neighbor with no railings on her balconies will have great trouble finding anyone to help with those repairs.  You might have to send her a “SECOND VIOLATION” letter.

I finished my reply, threw the sheet of paper into an envelope, and put a stamp on it.  Then I went out to my garage, rummaged around for a can of Krylon white spray paint, and maintained my fence.

I’ll bet that humorless property manager only read Huckleberry Finn in high school.

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