…And A Happy New Year!

…And A Happy New Year!

I write the last post of the old year in a corner of the living room.  I’m sitting in a small clearing, surrounded by the wrapping paper and cardboard boxes that still claim most of the floor.  I’m in the living room because the dogs are in the laundry room, adjacent to the kitchen.  They’ve been fed and had a jolly romp through the pasture, none of which contributes to their state of contentment or well-being.  All four dogs are border collies, which is to say, all four were bred to spend sixteen hours a day nipping sheep into various configurations and combinations.  There are varieties of border collies that have been poofed into caricatures of the breed in order to compete in beauty contests, but our pack, while lovely to behold, are rangier with a lean and hungry look.  These are working dogs currently under-employed, skilled in expressing their disappointment in the sloth this dog owner persists in enjoying at their expense.  It is the voicing of that grievance that pulls me into the living room, almost far enough away from the laundry room to ignore their importuning.

I’m not the Alpha owner.  That would be my wife, a practiced dog handler, dog trainer, photographer of dogs, and expert in almost all things canine.  I’m in the pecking order somewhere as the hand that feeds and the hand that scoops, but only slightly more important than their water dish.  I  do have a place in the nightly bedtime ritual, visiting each dog and providing affectionate tribute to each in turn.  The eldest, Jinx, is deaf and easily startled, so I approach her head on and work from her ears to the white blaze on her chest.  Rogue, the bossiest of the bunch, rolls on her back, paws bent in supplication, presenting her stomach for scratching.  Satch, largest male, doesn’t move when petted, but groans in satisfaction.  Banner, the wild child, likes to sleep in his crate, but slinks out, laying his head on my lap before trying to scramble his entire length into my arms.

Today the usual routine was slightly disturbed as one of the four, or perhaps all of the four, got into a garbage bag I had foolishly left out for disposal later.  Compared to the skunk attack on Christmas Eve, a spray of coffee grounds and a few mangled banana peels are hardly worth mentioning.  Someone got most of a chicken pot pie and another seems to have finished off the asparagus, none of which had any impact at all on their appetite as lunch hour drew near.  If there is blame to be tossed about, I’ll take it. The floor needed a good scrubbing anyway, and the fault clearly lies with the Beta owner who walked away this morning leaving a full bag of tempting garbage on the kitchen floor.

In addition, I was more than happy to be the designated scrubber as the Alpha owner had branched into yet another field of expertise.  For several days I had been mildly irked by a scratching sound that I took to be coming from the heating unit in the attic; irked, but not moved to do anything about the noise.  My wife, on the other hand, quickly decided that what I took to be the random clicking and clacking of the vents and ducts was, in fact, the scurrying of an invading creature or nest of creatures.

I’m inclined to live and let live, often moving spiders from the house to the great outdoors.  “I release you,” I say and watch them scurry back under the door jamb.  My wife takes home invasion seriously; after she heard the first set of scritches, she baited and set a trap in the attic and waited to see how many victims she could pile up in the course of a day.  Two flattened rats later the scritching was considerably lessened.  She’s convinced there is another one up there, and if there is, by gum,  my wife will find it, flatten it, and fling it.

I’m not dismayed by my tender heartedness, but I have made some notable errors of judgment in the attempt to rid ourselves of pests while meeting them with gentle termination, none more egregious than my decision to spare a band of invading rats in another home the indignity that arrives with the springing of a trap.  Much more humane, I argued, to use the newly invented rat glue pots, plastic tubs spread in the areas rats like to traverse.  The idea was, I guess, that the rat’s feet would be caught in the goo, immobilizing the rat and leaving him helpless so that a “kind” homeowner could pick up the glue pot, rat and all, and toss them both out, somewhere, away.  Had I thought about what would happen after an immobilized rat was pitched into the field behind the house?

I’m pretty sure I had not.

I had also not thought about how a rat would manifest its disapproval if partially glued to a plastic dish in our bedroom.  I certainly did not anticipate the rat leaping from the floor to the desk, hitting every key on the computer before leaping toward the window.  Unable to negotiate a clear path to the window, the rat (and glue pot) careened around the room until it managed to lug itself over the sill and out the window.  Landing in a bed of gravel, rat and glue trap continued to make a statement throughout the night.

No invading species has tumbled to the ground recently; the rain has pretty much let up, and I can take the dogs back outside for one more outing in which I pretend to be a recalcitrant sheep.  I’ll have a new episode of the Great British Bake Off by this evening, and our New Year’s celebration will include two out of our three children.

Among my gifts this holiday was a pair of socks.  They’re comfortable and useful, and they are emblazoned with the phrase, “I am grateful”.  I sit here, looking back at a year filled with gifts of every sort,  wiggle my socks, and wish my readers abounding good fortune in the year ahead.

 

 

 

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“Why all the fuss about Carrie’s admitting she had an affair with Harrison Ford? I have to admit I slept with her father!” Debbie Reynolds

“Why all the fuss about Carrie’s admitting she had an affair with Harrison Ford? I have to admit I slept with her father!” Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds was America’s Sweetheart from the moment she appeared in Singin’ In The Rain as a fresh-faced aspiring singer and dancer, more than holding her own with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in what most critics think was the best movie musical ever made. She was just eighteen when she was cast in the film, an accomplished gymnast but not a dancer.  Fortunately, Fred Astaire saw her potential and brought her along quickly enough that her performance in the film is flawless.  In the course of a long career, she made some other good films (The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, The Tender Trap, Tammy and the Bachelor, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Divorce American Style), and some less-than-good films (The Singing Nun, What’s the Matter With Helen?).  She is the voice of Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web and Splendora Agatha “Aggie” Cromwell in Halloweentown and both Halloweentown sequels  Seemingly unaffected by time and circumstance, Reynolds remained an accomplished singer and dancer, recording pop hits in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and assembling a series of successful Las Vegas revues, performing until she suffered a series of strokes in the past year.

She was a talented entertainer, but what set Debbie Reynolds apart from the stars and starlets of her generation was her uncomplicated good sense, sharp wit, and authentic kindness.  She was the person she seemed to be, maybe a bit tougher than we thought a sunny girl scout could be, maybe possessed of a slightly more wicked sense of humor than we expected to find, but grounded and grateful for the opportunity to do the work she loved. To the delight of an adoring public, she married a slick pop crooner, Eddie Fisher, whose greatest success came with the hit single, “Oh My Papa”, absolutely as maudlin and saccharine as one might fear.  The fan magazines adored the couple, showering attention on Reynolds as she added her children to the family.  Behind the scenes,however, Eddie had taken up with Debbie’s close friend, Elizabeth Taylor.  The sultry Taylor had three marriages in her rear view mirror, including the last, to Michael Todd, at which Debbie Reynolds had been Taylor’s bridesmaid.  When Todd was killed in a plane crash, Eddie, an equally close friend, offered the sort of comfort any grieving widow might expect from a slick crooner, abandoning Debbie and the children and becoming Taylor’s fourth husband.  Taylor would go on to have eight marriages to seven husbands (she married Richard Burton twice) and to reconnect with Debbie Reynolds, becoming a close friend again at the end of her life.

The the very public affair and very public divorce filled the pages of the fan magazines for more than a year, during which time Debbie Reynolds managed to care for her children, return to her career, and remain above the fray.  The public might have hoped for vitriol, but Reynolds had not gone Hollywood; despite her early success, she remained principled and self-possessed.  As she would in later years, as her daughter Carrie fell into a cycle of destructive behavior, Reynolds summoned caustic wisdom, unexpected perspective in a celebrated performer.   As one columnist put it, “She was more steel than magnolia.”

The Carrie Fisher story included detailed descriptions of a life out-of-control, including the admission that she could include Harrison Ford in her catalog of illicit relationships.  Reynolds response?  “Why all the fuss about Carrie’s admitting she had an affair with Harrison Ford? I have to admit I slept with her father!”  Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist and much of  Wishful Drinking, Postcards from the Edge, and Shockaholic document her battle with bipolar disorder, substance abuse, catastrophic relationships, her weight, and self-image, written with the same self-aware, deflective  humor  her mother had perfected.  Carrie’s appearance was the subject of a number of disparaging articles, and although she attempted to shrug off the charge that she had aged less gracefully than her mother, the taunts bothered both of them.  In roasting George Lucas, Carrie Fisher touched on the complicated legacy of having played Princess Leia, a hypersexualized royal in the first Star Wars cycle, suggesting that her proclivity toward things excessive derived from the role.  “… like any abused child wearing a metal bikini, chained to a giant slug about to die, I keep coming back for more.”

Debbie Reynolds was close to Carrie throughout the most difficult trials, as Carrie went through electroconvulsive therapy  treatments, “blowing out the cement in my brain” as Carrie put it.  Both women spoke openly and forcefully about their own struggles and both were widely admired.  “I want to be with Carrie,” Reynolds said upon learning of her daughter’s death.  The rare mutual regard between mother and daughter is the subject of a documentary airing on HBO in the coming months.

Equally rare is the objectivity with which these two women viewed their own careers and their lives.  Let’s start by agreeing that both fame and celebrity take a toll.  There’s no real baseline, I suppose, to present the case that Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Sheen, Macaulay Culkin, Corey Feldman, Amanda Bynes, the Kardashians, or anyone on Dr. Drew’s patient list might have enjoyed a robust and fulfilling life if not ravaged by life in the public eye; statistics suggest that the majority of families devastated by addiction and self-destructive compulsion are ordinary people.  If not for social media, the dreadful lives of afflicted ordinary people would remain undocumented, while the intimate and sordid detail of “life” among the celebrated is grist for the tabloid mill.

Some are born famous (Prince Harry), some achieve fame (Winston Churchill, Tiger Woods), and some have fame thrust upon them (Paris Hilton, Snooki Polizzi).  The last are celebrities;  celebrities, of course, are famous for being famous;  There seems to be something in our culture that raises otherwise undistinguished personalities to celebrated heights only to more fully relish their inevitable decline and fall.  Paparazzi exist in order to feed the beast, pulling us well past the boundaries of civility, hiding in bushes to catch them sunbathing, canoodling promiscuously,  mistreating their children.

They age, gain weight, lose hair; they disgust their fans. I have yet to buy one of the magazines that shouts the appalling news “Look who is too fat to wear a bathing suit!” Somebody does, it appears, as a new bloated body is shamed week after week in check-out lines across the country.  That is the sort of assault that Carrie Fisher withstood and one that Kelly Clarkson, Val Kilmer, Jessica Simpson,  Kirstie Alley, Kathleen Turner have all endured.  An entire segment of the publishing world is given to the flaying of those we once found attractive, an impulse particularly obscene when the object of vilification is a person, usually a woman, whose appearance has been altered by illness.  Rita Hayworth was “the love goddess”, the most popular pin-up girl during World War II.  In late-stage alcoholism and suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, she was far from glamorous; photos published at the end of her life were intended to mock her for having become unlovely.

Watch Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds if you can.  HBO has pushed the debut forward to January 7th; reviews from screenings at the Cannes Film Festival are excellent.  The producer describes the project as one that Debbie wanted to do for Carrie and one that Carrie wanted to do for Debbie.

“It’s life with Carrie and Debbie. It’s about both of them trying to stand upright, both having their frailties — age on the one hand and mental illness on the other. It’s a love story about a mother and daughter — they happen to be Carrie and Debbie,”

 

 

 

Keepin’ It Real

Keepin’ It Real

On Christmas Eve,  my daughter and I finished the thirty-third season of Survivor, Millennials vs. Gen X.  There had been some awkwardness earlier in the week as a dinner guest had suggested that Reality TV was idiotic, a charge we fully understood but we were unprepared to accept as we began the period of mourning until the next series (Survivor:Game Changers) arrives in March.  She carried the objection to the next level.  “You don’t actually think those shows are real, do you?”

Hmmm.  Real?  The farthest reaches of reality remain unmapped as far as I can tell, and the line between fiction and creative non-fiction is fairly fuzzy.  When do we participate in the real and when do we replicate the real?  How much of all that we see and know is a rough approximation of all that is?  Aren’t we all actors?  You know, on a stage?  Are we more “real” when unobserved than when in the company of others?  All those photos we save and trade were taken with cameras, ostensibly in order to capture something “real” to fuel our memory.  To Thy Own Self Be True, etc., but which self?  Which selves?  The ones we show or the ones we hide?

Look, I’m more than willing to discount the worst of the soul-soiling, exploitative, voyeuristic crud that travels under the flag of reality television – the celebrity hook-up, breast augmentation, bizarre addiction, abusive dance mom, toddler exploitation, temptation island flesh peddling orgiastic bachelor hot tub shows (although cramming them all together would make for some irresistible tv).  And, I’m willing to believe that most home make-overs and restoration projects run grotesquely over budget and take months longer to complete than promised, that extreme weight loss may not be easy or permanent, that relatively few storage units contain DaVinci’s long-lost sketch book, that bounty hunting is probably not a viable profession, and Hulk Hogan probably does not know best.

I have been shamed on occasion for investing time in So You Think You Can Dance, Project Runway and Top Chef, shows that allow me to admire contestants for skills I do not and cannot posses, shows that allow me to see invention, resilience, and grit under difficult circumstances, and shows I can watch with every member of my family.  But I’m tough.  Bring the slings and arrows; I can withstand the chivying of high-minded devotees of everything British on PBS.

Fortunately, however, my last lingering concern about losing credibility as a thinker and human was abandoned as I read The Folded Clock, A Diary by Heidi Julavits.  Julavits has written three of the novels I most admire, The Effects of Living Backward, The Vanishers, and the astounding The Uses of Enchantment.  I give these novels to friends sure in the knowledge that they will become as devoted to Julavits as I have become.  Her diary, The Folded Clock, reveals the fascination Julavits and her husband, noted novelist Ben Marcus, have with The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.  So, OK.  I’m not alone.

I happen not to be hooked at the moment, but I have watched at least two seasons of The Bachelorette in their entirety, unable to turn away from the impending train wrecks, clinging to a mildly desperate hope that reason would prevail, that character would matter, that in some fashion propinquity would bring the first tender shoots of true love.

I’d dipped into both shows on occasion, usually in response to a colleague’s strongly expressed opinions of one contestant or another, but I found the bachelors too uniformly predatory and the bachelorettes tooconsistenty needy.  Enough of both to go around in my daily life.  I remain immune to The Bachelor; how many triumphant, self-congratulatory fist-bumping broments can any one viewer endure?  I haven’t returned to The Bachelorette since I had been won over by one bachelorette who stood apart from the vacuous, preening, laminated crowd.  I’d forgotten her name, but as the magazine of record, Time Magazine, maintains a description of every season,  I recalled Ali Fedotowski.

Alexandra Fedotowski was clever, articulate, poised, sunny, kind, and vulnerable.  She had grown up in Williamstown, a town we knew well, graduated from Mount Greylock High School, and earned a degree from Clark University in Worcester.  Unlike many of the bachelorettes, Ali had a real and promising career, and despite having reached the final four in the  “competition”, had chosen to leave The Bachelor in an earlier season in order to return to her job as an account manager with Facebook in San Francisco.  The Berkshire Eagle’s Meghan Foley broke the news of her succession as the next Bachelorette arguing that,”…her sexy, raspy voice and good looks made her a fan favorite.”  And she was.

I’d like to say that this exceptionally grounded, balanced, small town girl traversed the seamy corridors of the Bachelorette man hunt with discretion and dignity, but courtship in the public eye brought her to a familiar and  tawdry finale.  She threw herself at a bachelor who wasn’t interested in her, causing her fans to scream, “Can’t you see he’s not into you?”  It was high school all over again.  “What on earth does she see in the jerk?”  But the train had not completely left the track yet; there were choices left to make, and seemingly credible partnerships to be had.  In the end, this intelligent, educated, competent young woman walked into the sunset with a shambling, mumbling, former minor-league ballplayer, Roberto Martinez, known to popular columnists as “Hottie McDimples”.

Do I believe that all that Alexandra Fedotowski went through was real?  I do.  And beyond that, I believe that this cheesy, goopy contrived mess was worth wading into if only to remind me of the equally compelling reality that even off camera, people make truly awful decisions on a daily basis. Whatever unsolicited opinions I and countless viewers held, Ali, herself a person of substance, walked away from substantial contestants to frolic with Martinez whose ideal woman models swimwear and bakes cookies.

As I consider the ragged arc of friends over the years and family at times, it seems clear that the heart wants what the heart wants.  In some cases it’s worked out; both of my sons found their true love with the first real drive around the block.  In other cases, wreckage and collateral damage is still mounting.   Lacking a complete set of instructions and finely calibrated  behavioral adaptation, we fumble a bit, perhaps a lot, make the best of situations that surprise us, try not to wallow in self-pity or puff up with grandiosity. Nevertheless, virtually all of life comes at us at full speed and without benefit of rehearsal.

I’m grateful for any help along the way, and I’ve been given more than my share by a generous universe.  There have been wise and caring counselors and mentors,  but there have also been books that arrived at exactly the right time.  I’ve walked out of the theater transformed by a film or play that challenged my convictions.  Documentaries, dance performances, photographs, music – each has allowed me to see the world as a bigger, more vivid place.  And, against all expectation, these too-loudly hyped televised facsimiles of reality provide unexpected rehearsal for life.

I don’t want wax too ethereal in defending my fondness for Survivor; it’s essentially the adventures of a mismatched multi-generational Swiss Family Robinson marooned on an unaccommodating island, scheming to be among the final few at the end of the competition.  I’m aware of my own soft dependence on domestic comfort as I watch each season.  I don’t have what it takes to eat grubs and worms; I’m never going to volunteer to huddle under a palm frond during a typhoon.  I’m not built for adventure, but I do appreciate adventure second-hand.  There are life lessons galore having to do with loyalty, gumption, friendship, and betrayal, but the bottom line is pretty much always survival, and I’m aware that I take the advantages of my cosseted life for granted.

There are worse things that setting out to be a survivor with the basic tenets of humanity intact, and in times of challenge such as these, I intend to use the lessons I’ve learned at a distance to outwit, outplay, and outlast.

 

 

 

 

The Most Meaningful Last-Minute Gift

The Most Meaningful Last-Minute Gift

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.’’

I’m a sucker for holiday movies, especially those in which a lost cause is won, a humble hero is celebrated, a hardened heart is softened.  I snuffle when kindness arrives without fanfare, when courage and generosity prevail.  As moving and heartwarming as those moments are on film, true compassion as practiced by real people is even more powerful.  Even in the darkest moments, there are folks who somehow find the will to do good, and in enduring despite the longest of odds, they restore my faith in … well … in all of us.

So much of value is at risk so much of the time; consider the work done by The Sierra Club, The Heifer Project, The International Rescue Project, The United Way, The Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Direct Relief, Habitat for Humanity, Make-A-Wish Foundation, and countless other effective agencies  It takes only a moment to make a gift of support to any of these, or any of another hundred more; and no more than a moment to make the gift in the name of a friend or loved one who doesn’t really need the gift purchased at the last-minute.

As it has to many families, terrifying challenge has on occasion come to mine; without telling a story that is not mine to tell, it happened that I was privileged to visit a session of The Hole in the Wall Camp, a remarkable facility dedicated to providing “a different kind of healing” to seriously ill children and their siblings.”  Founded and funded by Paul Newman in 1988, the camp’s facilities are designed to allow children facing dramatic illness the opportunity to find fun, adventure, and community in a setting providing extensive medical support.  Children with cancer, hemophilia, sickle-cell anemia, HIV/AIDS, metabolic illness and blood disorders find themselves in a setting that offers swimming, horseback riding, sing-along campfires, archery , arts, crafts, music, theater, woodworking, even a high-ropes adventure course.  A staff of physicians is on hand; medical facilities are extensive, but doctors wear t-shirts and shorts; nurses and counselors are indistinguishable.  And, of course, there is no charge to any of the participants, more than 50% of whom are children of color.

The camp itself is set in rolling farmland in northeast Connecticut, about forty-five minutes from Hartford.  The buildings have been designed  with the security of seriously ill children in mind.  For example, residential cabins have been built around a circular expanse of  lawn; it’s lovely, and it provides a staging area should a child need to be air-lifted to emergency care.  The infirmary is anything but institutional; it’s called “The OK Corral”, and seems to have been lifted from a tumbleweed-ridden western town.

I’m tempted to write at length about the camp’s many extraordinary programs, including outreach to hospitals, outreach to parents and siblings,  and “The Hero’s Journey”, a seven-day wilderness adventure program for teens too old to attend the camp, but at the end of a remarkable visit to the camp, I came away most impressed by the camp’s young counselors.  I met them as they travelled with their charges to activities, some carrying a child, each holding a child’s hand.  I met them in the dining hall, attending to each child’s needs, rising to sing their cabin’s spirited song, standing to perform a silly stunt or remarkable talent.  Their energy was seemingly inexhaustible; their good humor contagious.  Against all odds, the prevailing emotion throughout the day was joy.

I wondered how the camp’s director had found these remarkable people, most of whom appeared to be of college age.  Later, as I read testimonials that campers, parents, and counselors had written about their experience at the camp, I began to realize than many had a personal stake in the camp’s mission.

As surprised as I was by the joy I felt throughout my visit, an even less expected lesson was in learning that the camp provided a setting in which seriously ill children might be relieved of responsibility for appearing seriously ill.  A camper described his experience as liberating because he was able to see himself as something other than a victim.  ” There’s no other place in the world where I can sing at the top of my lungs, jump off a tower knowing that nothing would ever happen to me, feel love the second I entered, and most importantly, not be made into an awkward embarrassment because I had leukemia.”

As to the counselors, many of them had been campers or siblings of campers.  “I was the only long-term survivor in my chemo class of 18, and Camp was the only place in the world where I saw that kids like me not only survived, but thrived.”  Another wrote, “In 2007, (my brother) died when he was 10. I went back to Camp that summer, more scared than ever and certainly more fragile than the past. I met campers who had also lost their siblings and shared the stripping, raw sentiment of such an unfair event. My senior camper week filled me, and I left Camp with a realization that I was in none of this alone. I thought: I will never experience anything like this again.”  At the end of a summer as a counselor, this sibling wrote, “After this summer, I have no words. Once again, I continue to think: I will never experience anything like this ever again.”

Campers and counselors, the seriously ill, their siblings and families, because of The Hole In the Wall Camp, they are not alone.

There are other equally transformative initiatives at work, for children of course, each of which is both dependent upon and deserving of support.  A brief list of those would include Save the Children, the Shriners Hospitals, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House Charities, and SOS Children’s Villages.  Our dog-centered lives bring us in contact with a number of agencies providing services to children; one of the  most interesting is Canines for Disabled Kids, a relatively newly established organization and one that could use some help in getting great dogs to kids with disabilities.

It isn’t getting any easier to make a difference in the world, but it is remarkably easy to assist those who believe in doing all that they can, one child at a time.  We love our friends, and we love to give; why not honor the people we love by honoring those who work for the benefit of children?

 

 

 

 

All I Ask Are A Few Reindeer, A Train Set, And Kindness

All I Ask Are A Few Reindeer, A Train Set, And Kindness

Memories of Christmases past are inevitably brighter, more vivid, and sweeter than any holiday adventure available in the present.  Christmas trees were taller, packages more elaborately wrapped, feasts more elaborate, family and friendship more secure.

My wife and I had both been raised in Connecticut, she in a well manicured town, I in what was then dairy farm countryside.  We both grew up expecting what might be called the Classic Colonial Christmas experience, steeply roofed white houses welcoming a single evergreen wreath on the red, green, or black front door, candles flickering in every window.  Snow arrived on Christmas Eve as if on command; skating ponds froze convincingly.  Twinkling lights had begun to appear in storefronts by the time we headed off to college and our own lives, but the most garish display was in the stringing of colored lights on the town’s Christmas tree.

I wasn’t opposed to the more elaborate spasms of holiday decoration that began to appear as our children met their first Christmases, but I didn’t leap into ambitious or competitive illumination.  Did I buy a few tasteful inflatable figures?  I did.  Did I inflate them on the day after Thanksgiving?  I did.  Did I add a new character each year?  Possibly.

In a curious turn of events, we ended up in living in Huntsville, Alabama for five years, during which time, my eldest headed off to college himself, returning for Christmas to the great delight of our younger children.  Huntsville is in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, about halfway between Nashville to the north and Birmingham to the south.  Snow fell only rarely and never as the kids waited for the scramble of reindeer hooves on Christmas Eve.  We might have felt significant cultural dislocation had it not been for the efforts of Dr. John Higginbothom who lived a short distance from our home in South Huntsville.

Higginbotham decorated his home with loving attention to detail.  His displays were bright but not gaudy, and all featured characters especially treasured by children ; holiday trains carried stuffed pandas, Charlie Brown fed Snoopy in front of the celebrated dog house as Woodstock perched  on Snoopy’s dish, Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore decorated Piglet’s tree.  All of these were hand-crafted constructions; lights shone upon them not among them.  In the early years, Dr. Higginbotham dressed as Santa, greeting visitors as they approached the house.  His neighbors quickly caught the holiday spirit, decorating their houses as well so that a trip to Horseshoe Drive became a Huntsville tradition.

By the time our kids found Horseshoe Trail, Higginbotham had added other actors, elves, snowmen, and for several years, a bounding purple dinosaur.  The Grinch found his way to the troupe as well, but the greatest attraction of all was the herd of reindeer penned on Higginbotham’s lawn from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day.

Reindeer wranglers allowed children to pat and feed the reindeer, advising my children that they preferred bananas to any other treat.  For years, they pulled on sweaters, mittens, and hats, then pulled a bunch of bananas into a sack before meeting the reindeer again.  They were particularly pleased to know that the reindeer liked bananas peel and all.

We moved from Huntsville to Carpinteria, California.  Local decorations there often put Santa on a surfboard or motorcycle.  We missed the reindeer.

A few years ago. John Higginbotham’s health began to fail; for several years the only decoration of the Higginbotham’s house was a simple wreath.  Today, his grandchildren keep his legacy alive by maintaining many of the displays we knew so well.  The reindeer, though, have been returned to a reindeer ranch north of Huntsville.

Last night, my daughter and I pulled on mittens and hats, boarded a bus, and set out on a tour of holiday lights in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon.  We walked through two neighborhoods that include willingness to participate in ambitious decoration as a condition of ownership.  The houses were similar, mini-plantation mansions nestled side-by-side, each festooned with blinking, sweeping, cascading lights.  I can’t guess at the wattage expended on a nightly basis, but I assume the neighborhoods can be seen from Mars.

The houses are certainly brightly illuminated, and I have to believe that each display costs a fortune to maintain, but within a few minutes, my daughter and I agreed that there was nothing charming in the excess of light.

We won’t return.

On the way home, however, we convinced the driver to take us by a display we had heard about in a less affluent part of the city.  It took some time to find the very ordinary neighborhood in which a man much like John Higginbotham had used his entire lawn to create a snowy landscape, a miniature village with gala groups dancing and skating, all of which was surrounded by train tracks on which five separate holiday themed trains ran in complex configurations, spouting steam and whistling.  The detail in the display was arresting.  My daughter and I stood in the cold, laughing as we caught sight of each display we had overlooked, such as the school teaching reindeer how to fly by suspending them from tall cables strung across the edge of the village.

There were no crowds lined up to see the trains; we were alone in the dark night, absorbed by the complexity of this small world.  As we prepared to leave, the owner of the house came out to make sure we had enjoyed the visit, promising to add another set of trains for next Christmas.

Of course we will return.

Both the reindeer house and the train house were authentic and charming; they were created with generous good humor and with the hope of bringing delight.  As I think of my children and the gifts they have been given, I am aware that kindness begins with caring.  The brilliant shows of light are decorative, reflecting the owners’ pride in their homes and in their ability to afford elaborate display.  Feeding reindeer bananas and putting Santa and elves on the train circling skaters on a pond – those better, funny, gentle, generous, gifts come from people who remember what it was to be a child and to encounter unexpected magic.

 

 

 

 

A Blue Christmas Becomes A Christmas Miracle

A Blue Christmas Becomes A Christmas Miracle

My Christmas wish was simple:  I wanted Jinx, our fourteen year-old dog, to hang on long enough to greet my daughter as she arrived from Massachusetts. My daughter was eleven when Jinx was born in December, on Friday the 13th.  She named Jinx and loved her wholly from the start and for the next fourteen years.  We’ve seen Jinx start to fail over the last few months.  She has been startled easily, by her food dish, by shadows, by her own paws.  She’s wandered off, increasingly deaf and now losing much of her vision.

She has been trying to play with the other dogs, but forgets where she is, bumps into them, is nettled when they upset her unsteady balance. She yips and corrects their behavior, and, as the senior dog in the pack, still has their respect, but they no longer invite her to join in their canine games.  She’s been alone outdoors more often recently; the faster, more athletic dogs have bounded away, leaving her to wonder where they have gone.

So, closing in on her final days but still gentle, sweet, and affectionate.  Over the course of the last few weeks, Jinx seemed to regain some of her former energy; she asked to have the ball thrown, ran purposefully to chase it down, then stood with one paw covering the ball, not actually retrieving but claiming victory.  We were heartened and felt certain that Jinx would hang on until our daughter flew in from Boston.

Better and better.  The temperature was dropping fast, and we had hopes of a white Christmas.  With a week to go before the holiday, our days were packed.  I did a shift as a volunteer at the Hospice Thrift Shop, finished most of my shopping, began planning the Christmas Eve dinner, and accepted invitations to concerts on Friday and Saturday night.  That was to be the end of holiday scramble; I wanted to clear the calendar so that I could give full attention to my daughter arriving on Sunday evening.

I walked from the concert hall at Southern Oregon University into the coldest night I can remember since moving here.  Compared to the frozen north, it will seem laughable, but for us, a stretch of cold weather in the low teens is plenty daunting.  I had turned off my phone, so powered back up as I began the drive home and saw that my wife had called repeatedly.

By the time I reached her, Jinx had been missing for two hours.  She has been easily disoriented and oddly off course for about a week, and last night slipped away  in a short moment as tone of the other dogs had to be tended to.  My first thought was that this fragile old lady would not survive much more time in the bitter cold; I raced home to help in the search, driving slowly with high beams as I approached our home.  I watched the road, of course, but also slowed in passing every deep culvert or dangerous ground above a creek running high this winter.

We searched through one of the coldest nights we’ve experienced here; the ground was hard with frost.  In full sunlight, I had to use a shovel to break the ice on the water trough in the meadow; the broken pieces were more than two inches thick. I drove down every nearby road, jumping out of the car to call her name and whistle.  Nothing.

My son and daughter-in-law hurried over, as did two good local friends.  They stayed out for as long as they could, combing every inch of our property and those adjacent to ours.

I went out on foot, again calling and whistling, clapping.  For several hours, I walked down every path I thought she might have taken.  I climbed down the banks of the creek, fearing she might have stumbled into coursing water.  I walked into meadows, fearing she might have been taken by a coyote or the cougar we’ve seen at the far end of the pasture.

By the time I finally gave up and came home, she had been out in the cold for five hours.  My wife and I had to face the probability that our frail dog could not have survived unless a kind stranger found her wandering on the side of the road and picked her up.  My wife posted alerts on every social media site she could find, but we began to fear a terrible and lonely end for a dog we treasured.  We were also heartbroken that our daughter would arrive only to know that we did not know how Jinx had died or what tortures she had endured.

Exhausted, we had to stop the hunt until morning.  I stepped into the room she’s claimed as her own, looked at the down comforter she’s been sleeping on for weeks, and wept.We left the kitchen door slightly open, in case she found her way home, and I slept fitfully on the couch near the door so that I could not fail to hear her should she make it home.

At first light this morning, we began again, walking up and down the same roads and across the same fields whistling and calling her name.  Still bitter cold, by mid-morning, as hope flagged,  we started to truly believe she hadn’t made it.  Our thoughts turned to the most dreadful fears of what she might have faced.

But it must have been our turn for a Christmas miracle.

The phone rang at eleven o’clock.  A caller with an area code far from our home, a volunteer working with a dog rescue agency,  insisted that someone had found Jinx.  She had fallen into a swimming pool almost a mile away, had been trapped in the pool all night.  The family had assumed that the dog barking through the night was a neighbor’s poorly behaved pet and did not go outside to check until mid-morning.  They found Jinx halfway out of the water, her front paws frozen to the cement at the edge of the pool.  The person responding had to use a hammer to chisel her paws free.

We grabbed every blanket and down jacket in the house, drove too quickly, and found our dog near-death, trembling almost unrecognizable, wide-eyed, in shock.  I don’t know if she knew us at the start; we simply bundled her and carried her to the heated car where I lay with cradled her in my arms.  As we pulled into the driveway, I told my wife that I would stay with her in the very warm car, wrapped in the very warm blankets, while she prepared a virtual sauna in one of the bathrooms.

We spent the whole day holding her..  She was able to eat and drink, wobble a bit to take care of her business outside, and sit up to greet the next admirer entering her warm tent.

I picked my daughter up that evening; she held Jinx that night.

The miracles that matter aren’t really accidents:  A stranger summons extraordinary kindness, long-overlooked gifts are finally recognized, generosity or forgiveness appears unsolicited.  Our Christmas miracle arrived because Jinx loves life too much to leave it easily.  She’s a gentle dog with a backbone of steel.

Do we deserve the loyalty and love our pets give so freely?  I’m not at all sure we do, but I know we are our best selves when we recognize their heart and make room for them in ours.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

 

 

The Animals’ Christmas Tree

The Animals’ Christmas Tree

Some people believe that animals can speak at midnight on Christmas Eve.

I had to wonder.  Perhaps it was just a story told by folks who want to know what sorts of things are on an animal’s mind; perhaps it was true in part.  Perhaps some animals could speak, but I hadn’t heard them.

Not once.

And I’d spent a number of Christmas Eves watching the animals I knew pretty closely.  I don’t want to call this a battle of wits, because I’m not sure of either of us qualifies for that sort of battle, but my second dog, Cookie, can scrunch up her forehead when I talk, leaning in to hear the parts where my voice goes soft.  She’ll raise her chin, like she’s about to answer or offer a comment, you know, perhaps agree, or maybe ask for more details.

There’ve been times when I forget that she hasn’t actually asked, and I’ll find myself answering what are my own questions.  “No,” I’ll say.  “I haven’t seen one of those Jays all fall.  I don’t know where they’ve gone.”

As if that’s something she wanted to know about, and maybe it is.  Just as good as any other question, I guess.  As much as I was genuinely interested in what went on between Cookie’s ears, I had to admit I was doing the talking for the both of us.

So, I was pretty sure the story was only a story, at least when it came to the animals I had spent any time with.

Then there’s another story, about the animals’ Christmas tree.

That one struck me as not very likely as well.  I wasn’t all that concerned about the details of it, what paws and beaks and claws and talons might be able to do when it came to decoration; it just didn’t seem likely that animals would care about having a Christmas tree.  I’m not going to get all scriptural here, but not many animals had a chance to get in on the first Christmas, sheep and lambs, I suppose, perhaps a goat, too, since they all would have been driven by the same shepherd, a donkey, maybe.  Anyway, even though some animals were around, why would an otter, say, or a lynx come around on Christmas Eve?

You might wonder why I bring any of this up at all, since I seemed to be so convinced that there wasn’t anything to these stories, that they were stories kids might like, nothing more.

Well, I was mostly convinced and pretty much kept to Christmas the way most families do.  Sure, over the years, I’d stay up to check on the dogs, but I’d be up anyway, putting out the things I wanted the kids to find on Christmas morning.  Just about midnight, I’d stop wrapping and sit as quietly as I could, staying still for as long as I could, but after fifteen or twenty minutes, I’d give up again and head to bed.

Last year, though, both the kids had moved all the way to North Dakota, and the weather was just terrible all across the northern plains.  Winds were bad there, and the roads were slick ice.  I couldn’t ask them to pack in; I knew I probably wouldn’t get very far if I tried to drive.  So we talked on the phone a bit on Christmas Eve, even sang a few songs, then I said Merry Christmas and sat right there in front of the fire.

I must have dropped off for a while because both Bosco and Cookie really needed to go outside, and I didn’t remember putting them out the way I usually do, right about ten.  Now, Cookie may be a dog that seems ready to start a conversation, but Bosco’s not a dog with much on his mind; he’s pretty much a creature of instinct; I hadn’t even got the door fully open when he bolted.  Cookie took off too, and since there’s been so much talk about coyotes around here, I pulled on my boots and coat and tried to catch up.

I’m at the end of an unpaved road that runs between three of the last big farms around.  If they’d stayed on the road, I could have gained some ground, but they lit out over the neighbor’s field, Bosco churning up snow as he lumped along and only Cookie’s flopping ears visible as she followed.  My boots filled with snow almost from the start; it was like trying to run with a sack of rocks on each foot.  Clouds opened up a bit, letting some moonlight filter through; The craters Bosco left behind were easy to pick out, but I lost sight of the dogs early on and just kept on, hoping they’d get tired and circle back.

I was tiring myself, slowing to a walk.  Clouds that had been scutting overhead, slowed and settled just about the same time I did.  What little moonlight I’d had was gone.  I trudged up a bank not able to see a thing, hoping I wasn’t about to drop into one of the creeks that runs through the farms, my arms straight out in front of me, in case I took a fall.

Getting to the top of the rise, I caught flickering light up ahead.  “Dang!” I thought.  I could see then that the dogs’ tracks ran straight out ahead.  I was about done, and the wind had picked up, but I did love those creatures, and they were all the company I had, so I hunkered down a little more, pulled up my collar and followed the tracks.

I had my head down against the wind, but I hadn’t gone very far before I could tell that the flicker of light had become more steady.  By now you’ve probably figured out that it was that tree I was telling you about, a single pine tree way out in the middle of mostly open land.  I can’t tell you even now where the lights came from; maybe moon and clouds happened to get together just right.  I can’t say.

What I do know is that my dogs were sitting there as calm as could be, right alongside the border collies from the Harris place and the three-legged pig from across the road.  I knew better than to get too close, but I could make out horses, cows, sheep, for sure.  Other creatures were smaller and sat lower.  I could have sworn I saw a cougar and three foxes, but that doesn’t seem likely, given the company they were in after all.  What I took for a rough stand of brush though, turned out to be two bears, swaying, half standing, close together.

I can’t swear to it, and I guess I am in danger of spinning a story I had been longing to hear for a long time, but it looked to me, by the way my dogs bobbed their heads and turned from time to time, like they were listening, like they were in a kind of conversation.  The wind had picked up considerably back where I stood, blowing right in my face.  My eyes watered, almost froze solid in the cold, and my ears had got to that stage where they felt as if they would snap off if I moved too quickly.  The way that wind moved across the snow, the way sounds seemed to rise and fall,  I could almost believe the strangest, sweetest song I ever heard was coming from across that meadow.

I turned then and picked my way back home through the snow.  Didn’t look back for some reason.  I think somehow I knew better.  I’d hardly shaken off my coat and boots when I heard Bosco and Cookie at the door.  I let them in, toweled off most of the snow they carried inside, plumped up the pillows each one liked, made sure they had water, poked the coals down in the fireplace, and went to bed.

I’ve thought about it a lot since then, even tried to retrace my steps, but I’ve never found my way back.  The dogs haven’t taken off that way again, and I’ve never seen a moon like the one that night.

I like to think I was invited too, just that one time, just as far as I got to go.  Some stories only open once, I guess, and this one came to find me just about when I needed it most.

Maybe your story is waiting for you.

Merry Christmas!