Close Encounters of the K9 Kind

I open my bedroom door to find two dogs prancing. They run to the front door as I retrieve Shakes’ halter. He waits patiently as I snap it on. Sedge’s halter jingles as he nervously circles. I snap halters on a leash with dual leads and open the door. They leap forward but come to a halt with noses pressed against the porch screen door. I say, “No,” when Sedge pushes a sharp-clawed paw against the mesh. I retrieve a plastic bag and poop scoop from the far end of the porch, tighten my grip, and release the hounds.

Sedge drags us into the yard. They visit plants and bushes to mark territory. Sedge, the taller of the two, pees on Shakes’ head when the two simultaneously water the same spot.

A tug of war commences on the way down the driveway. Shakes weighs more and throws his weight to the left. We eventually go left after Sedge is begrudgingly allowed a quick whizz on the mailbox post.

Yards needing a pick up and a mow dot Chilean Drive. I let the two sniff longer on untamed stretches than on manicured lots. Some particular home owners take offence when dogs squat and drop, even when I pick up the mess.

Turn them toward home after Shakes makes a deposit. I let Sedge linger at an unrented rental house on the way back. A woman steps into the street behind us and says, “Aren’t you gonna let me meet your cute little doggies?”

“Sure,” I say. As we head toward her, Sedge begins to lunge, bare his teeth, growl. He’s afraid of strangers. Shakes wags his tail happily and jumps up for a head scratch after we arrive. Sedge tries to back away, but the woman persists. Even skittish dogs need her love.

Sedge strains so hard on his halter that he manages to escape. He looks surprised to find himself naked and unattached. I step away from the woman (Jamie) and say, “Sedge. Come here.” He slinks up to us. I grab him while pressing my foot down on the leash to keep hold of Shakes.

Jamie insists on putting the halter back on Sedge. I can tell that she’s had a few after she tangles front legs in the straps. I unsnap him and say, “Let me do it. It has to be done in a specific way.” Jamie says, “I want to help. I’m good at this.” She fumbles further while Sedge squirms. He nearly gets away. I grab him and say, “Please, lady. Let me do it.” She surrenders the halter. Sedge keeps shifting as I try to wrap the straps around his midsection. I finally reattach dog to leash. I let out a long sigh.

Jamie apologizes. “I was only trying to help. I thought that he needed some loving.”

“That’s okay,” I say.

It’s been a long day. I long to return home to finish my work. But Jamie needs to talk. And talk. I have to see x-rays of her neck. She’s worried about an upcoming surgery. She’ll go get her cell phone from her carport. My tone delivers the message when I tell her, “It has to be quick. I’ve got to go home.” She solemnly says, “It was meant for us to meet,” gives me a hug, and releases us.

The next morning, I take them up another street. We’re accosted by a yip yap, an improbable cross between a chihuahua and a bulldog. His master calls him off as my two snap and nearly pull my arm out its socket. A man with a Boston terrier disturbs us as we head into a drainage area. Shakes and Sedge lunge toward them, but I drag my charges away.

My nerves jangle after we return. Close encounters with belligerent dogs bother me. But I take comfort in the fact that we didn’t run into Jamie.

Working on the Side

I usually divide class time between giving students one-on-one instruction and grading sketchbooks, but now I’m grading homework at home. (Students upload jpegs of their homework drawings to a page on Canvas.) When my classes are full, I rush to give personalized guidance to students. The class sizes are limited to twelve students maximum this semester (Covid-19 protocol), so I sometimes have short stretches of free time.

2135, colored pencil, 5 x 3.5″

I tend to over teach: I talk too much instead of giving them time to draw. So working on small colored pencil drawings keeps me from badgering students. In the past, I’ve sometimes written letters whenever I had free time. But writing engages another mode of creative thinking than drawing. My colored pencil sketches keep me in step with my students. When I go back to teaching, I’m already up to speed.

I’m using a cheap, little sketchbook and a kid’s set of colored pencils. Can’t get too serious about making FINE ART when the materials are meant for amateurs. My artistic ego gets triggered less, so I can put down my drawings at a moment’s notice.

2136, colored pencil, 4 x 3″

2135 started with the word, “calm”, and became excitable. 2136 began with the word, “dog”. I added the overlapped names of the two dogs Judy and I are watching. The final drawing looks more like plants than puppies. It seems that short, disjointed work periods allow contradictory notions to enter the drawing process.

Skip to the End

My wife and I have a collection of DVDs that we fall back upon when other sources of entertainment run dry. One of my favorites is “Accidental Tourist”. I love all parts of the movie except for the scenes with Kathleen Turner. She plays Sarah, a woman torn by grief. She believes Macon, her husband, blocks any hope for her recovery. She finds fault with him no matter how hard he tries to comfort and please her. They separate and prepare to divorce.

Macon stumbles into a relationship with Muriel, a woman who genuinely cares for him. Then he allows Sarah to pull him back into another attempt at their marriage. Their relationship eventually grinds to a halt after it becomes obvious to Macon and Sarah that their deepest connections have been permanently severed. Macon reconciles with Muriel in a beautiful scene. They look at each other with tenderness and acceptance.

I know that the difficult passages about depression, estrangement, and conflict set up the sweet intensity of the final scene, but I sometimes wish that I could get there by an easier route. I want to skip to the end.

I sometimes want to skip to the end when hard times arrive at my doorstep. Movie plots run along predictable lines, but the course of a life doesn’t. Part of the difficulty of enduring harsh interludes is not knowing how the story will end. Or whether there’s any point to making an effort or to being brave. Will holding my temper while dealing with a persistently annoying relative ultimately pay off? Or will that relative just take advantage of my forbearance until I reach a point of exhaustion? Will opening myself up to grief lead to peace and solace? Or will I sink into chronic depression? If I could watch the final reel, then I could make better choices now.

But striving to find certainty is a fool’s errand. Life seldom sticks to predictable paths. Even those leading conventional lives often encounter unexpected difficulties. Begging the gods for mercy seldom works.

What’s left to do?

When I make full use of a moment, good or bad, painful or joyful, I become awake. But when I ponder about what could be or could have been, I dream fitful dreams. When I stop worrying about the end of a story in order to actually participate in the story, I am wholly and purposefully engaged. But when I fret about the future, I stop moving forward. When I accept whatever comes my way, then I am at peace. But when I put buffers between me and reality, I begin to die.

Anger

James 1:20  “For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

Anger is one of my weaknesses. When something (or someone) attacks me or makes me uncomfortable, the needle on my pressure dial swings toward the red zone.  Sometimes I inwardly seethe.  Sometimes, I snap.  I later defend my reaction by drawing a line between my perceived enemy and me.  “I’d never do what he did,” I tell myself.  “What a jerk!”

Fear ignites ire.  Judgment justifies.

While making negative judgments is an easy way to tag a perceived enemy, it’s also a sign that I secretly fear that I am like the despised.  I saw this in action as a child.  Whenever I showed temper,  a relative with a short fuse gave me the severest rebukes.  He didn’t like to witness a reminder of his own flaw.

Some become addicted to rage and actively seek contention.  Resentment, judgment, and even hatred become an integral part of their nature. They become anger sharks who must continually swim in an ocean of rage in order to breathe.  Anyone who attempts to soothe their ragged spirits is considered a meddler or an annoying fool.

Why do people fall into this habit?  Anger gives dubious gifts in the form of adrenaline rushes, feelings of superiority, and temporary relief from facing other difficulties.  It also gives a false sense of power to those feeling vulnerable and weak.

Some become trapped in anger loops concerning past events.  Mistreatment from twenty years ago still provokes them.  They long for justice (vengeance).  They replay scenes in their minds but alter the results.  This time, they respond to insults and injuries with devastating counterattacks.  None of this is productive, of course.  Clinging to grievances erodes health and undermines peace of mind.  A Buddhist teaching states, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

My defense against anger:  remind myself that I am a beloved child of God.  Whatever happens to me, I am a part of God’s creation.  God declared His creation good.  Nothing and no one can change that.

Shifting Ground

We tell ourselves stories based on experience and family history. These identity tales give us a sense of continuity. They help us understand how we fit into the societal machine.

Sometimes these stories affirm self-worth. Sometimes they reinforce a sense of inferiority. But whether positive or negative, they provide the comfort of familiarity. Heritage is heritage even if our ancestors bequeathed a giant pile of garbage. Hands off. That’s our pile of garbage.

But what if we discover something that shifts the family narrative sideways? What if a genealogist tells us that our eighth great grandfather fought brilliant battles, performed miracles? Our current crumbling state of misery can’t be a result of his actions. The fault must be ours…On the other hand, what if we discover that great grandma was the Empress Of Evil? Do we take some satisfaction in maintaining greater kindness and humanity? How did we escape her dark influence? Are we just determined to be good despite an inherited handicap? Did genes from other relatives tip the balance in our favor? Did we luckily avoid desperate situations that provoke ruthless decisions? If God intervened to set us on a righteous path, why didn’t He (She) do the same for old Gram?

These questions make my head spin. But I do think that benefits come after the ground shifts beneath our feet. First, we can understand behaviors that had mystified us. We can figure out why Uncle Ralph always snapped at anyone who mentioned the town of Piqua. Aunt Betty always flushed scarlet when her cousin Jim walked into a room because…

Second, we learn that family members were capable of a broad range of behavior. A respected great aunt had an affair with a married man. An uncle landed in jail after hunting rabbits out of season. Grandpa hit the bars after work and came home surly. Mom took a young lady under her wing after the girl lost her father. Snappish Ned carried birdseed in his pocket to feed birds and squirrels. Cousin Bob helped a college buddy avoid Vietnam by driving him to Canada.

Third, possibilities open up to us. If all these unexpected things happened in our family line, what lies in store for us? We may be bound by chains of genetic heritage, but a surprising amount of choices remain available. And the identity stories we tell ourselves fall apart when too many sub-stories are added. No coherent narrative can enclose all those contradictions.

The earth shakes as our stories wither and die, but moments of unbalance are preludes to freedom. And we can remain free if we manage to avoid making up new stories.

Things happened. Things continue to happen. We can act.

Marlene Dietrich (Portrait in Charcoal)

I started a demonstration in a portrait drawing class. I worked from a photo of the movie star, Marlene Dietrich, taken when she was about twenty. I liked the moody light and her dreamy expression.

marlene dietrich 1930

I showed students the basics of the technique but didn’t get far. I decided to develop the drawing further at home.

At this stage, I’ve got basic lines over a light gray charcoal fog. Highlights have been erased. Dark tones and a few transitions have been developed.

Now, I’ve spread basic tones further across the paper.

A tonal block-in covers the paper. I’ve begun to add more details to a few areas.

This photo shows the latest level of development. I’ll do additional work on the dress, hair, hands, and face before the next class.

I want to get the drawing to the point where it’s sprayed and nearly finished. Then I’ll show students how to use charcoal and charcoal pencils to add final refinements.

But I don’t want to overwork the drawing until the swirling movement in the marks gets lost. The danger lies in polishing to the point where emotional expression becomes sacrificed to technical accuracy.

Judy Perseveres

Judy suffers from a tough version of vertigo. Dizziness has become her constant companion. Some days, she feels like she moves even while sitting still. The condition became acute in 2012. She had to apply for disability in 2013 when she lost her ability to work. During the worst times, all she could do was to sit motionless in a chair.

Her condition slowly improved over the course of the last nine years. Now she can walk 150 yards at a time. She can ride in a car for two or three hours if the driver takes turns slowly and makes no sudden moves. She can do a little housework. She can tend flowers in a raised bed. She can use a bread machine and bake granola.

And she can write. Left over data from a series of experiments tempted her to work on one last paper. She developed a discussion, a conclusion, and materials and methods sections over a period of four or five years. Working at a computer presented too many challenges during periods when her condition became acute, so she stopped and started several times. She abandoned the project when reading background papers and analyzing data became too daunting. But she received inspiration from a woman we met at church. Judy decided to take another attempt at finishing her last research project.

Last summer, she submitted her paper to the American Journal of Botany. Two reviewers accepted it, but a third reader (who skimmed the paper and drew false conclusions) rejected it. Judy didn’t quit. She made suggested changes, challenged the third reader’s position, and resubmitted the paper. The journal accepted the revised version. Then she had to deal with a nitpicking editor who made odd demands. Judy made final revisions while suffering from a temporary flair in her condition.

Two days ago, Judy printed out the paper from an on-line platform. She showed it to me. I tried to read it but soon got lost. Her extensive knowledge outstripped my limited ability to understand. But her expression showed me a sense of accomplishment and pride. It’s tough to get papers published under normal conditions, but she had persevered through severe handicaps. She had nothing to gain professionally but had honored tradition by exploring a question, analyzing results, making conclusions, and subjecting the work to review. No parts of this process builds ego. Opportunities for humiliation abound. But she took the risk any way.

I’m so damn proud.

This one reminds me of a garden.

2134, colored pencil, 8×5″

This reminds me of a spring garden: roses, tangles of leaves and vines, thorns. A thunderstorm looms.

It started with the word, “PEACE”, clouds, waves and a wading bird. The images and letters overlapped. I fused them into hybrid shapes and then started to play.

I don’t think that twists, turns and brooding colors evoke peace. It feels more like the rawness of nature on a brisk, wet day. The wind stings the ears. You can smell rain coming. But flowers push out of the mud. Cold dirt and sweetness.

“Let the Dead Bury the Dead.”

Some of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels sound harsh.  He delivers one of his bluntest retorts when responding to a request from a man who wants to bury his father before joining Jesus’ movement.  Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead.”  According to Jesus, the urgent need to spread the good news of redemption trumps social duties. The living presence of God on earth supplants average expectations, and funerals matter less to a person caught up in the joy of communion with the divine. The dead, those who do not recognize Emmanuel (God with us), can be left to go about normal social activities, to perform expected observances. 

St. Thomas Aquinas spent years working on “Summa Theologica”, his theological and philosophical magnum opus.  A sudden spiritual revelation overtook him as he neared completion.  He stopped writing and never resumed.  One of his associates asked St. Thomas why he no longer worked toward his consummate goal.  St. Thomas said, “I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”  The God Experience outstripped arguments and rationalizations.  Why bother to blather on while knowing that words can never suffice?

Such interludes of deep communion with God apparently come at unexpected moments.  Years of prayer and meditation usually proceed divine break throughs, but bliss arrives at moments of its choosing.  Paul described the unpredictable nature of transformation when he said that the kingdom of God comes “like a thief in the night”.

Letting go of the past must be one way of leaving doors unlocked for the unexpected. I spend a large proportion of my waking hours reliving long gone moments.  I wish I could go back and change my responses to challenges.  I want to have been kinder, braver, more steadfast.  I mourn over lost relatives and friends and long for a return to simpler, more livable times.  When I do this, I no longer live in the allotment given to me.  I become like the dead burying the dead.

Sore Neck, Tired Eyes, Wet Dogs

Sat on the living room sofa with two dogs, one on either side.  Thunder in the distance.  I heard sirens and a fire truck blat its horn.

Shakes, the terrier, turned back from a walk after venturing twenty feet on his favorite route.  Looked haunted.  He smelled a thunderstorm riding on an uneasy breeze.  Both dogs pulled me home. 

I finished supper dishes after releasing them from the double leash.  Sedge, the whippet, hovered nearby and gave significant looks.  He didn’t mean to warn about hand washing dishes during stormy weather.  Instead, he wanted me to quit fooling around.  It was time for the alpha to sit with him and his brother dog on the sofa.  The alpha is the protector.

I eventually made it there.  Shakes pressed against me but didn’t shake.  Sedge sat at the other end and pretended to sleep.  He resembles Neville Chamberlain in some respects.  He believes that ignoring a threat is preferable to facing one. 

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I went to an osteopath today for a neck, midback, knee and hip adjustment.  Now feel like someone tore my head off and stuck it back on…improperly.  A headache throbs at the top of my head.  Also got new glasses today and am adjusting to the new focal lengths.  Distance vision works well.  Close-up viewing requires head tilts, moving my head forward and back.  Texts slant at odd angles when my head isn’t perfectly squared up to a page.  Might have to go back for new lenses but am seeing some improvement.

Judy goes to the same osteopath tomorrow, our 37th anniversary.  I teach at Valencia that night.  We decide to celebrate later in the week when our necks hurt less, and when my schedule opens.  I’m going to make “invisible” apple cake.  Thin slices allegedly make the apple’s presence subliminal.

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The storm continued until bedtime.  I let the dogs out the back door for final leg lifts.  Shakes ran under the beauty berry bush and didn’t come back for a few minutes.  He didn’t mind the drizzle.  Sedge sat on the back porch slab and shivered.  Opened the door for him once I knew he wasn’t going anywhere.  Sedge jumped onto the sofa and stared at me.  I sensed reproach.  Shakes shook himself off several times once he made his entrance.  I could hear his loose skin flapping.