Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Three-legged Race

So, dogs and people. A lot alike. Covered that, with cheesy triteness, in the last post.

But there’s just one more dog-related thing chugging around my brain…the missing leg.

It’s beautiful to watch the animals run in the park, ears flapping, muscles doing what they were meant to do, coats gleaming in the sunshine. Some are perfect specimens. The rest do all right. Even that miraculous phenomenon that never ceases to amaze me: the three-legged dog.

We’ve all seen one – leg lost in some traumatic way – that runs, wags, even leaps for a Frisbee now and then, perfectly compensating for his loss, never looking back. The disability is obvious, but its effects are invisible. Sure, it must have been hard to relearn some things, and maybe he can’t sit up and beg any more, but he’s done what a dog does. He’s just gotten on with the business of joy.

In some of the early entries in this blog, I mentioned the epidemic of change in the lives of my friends (and, of course, my own as well). While some of these changes are positive, many of them – even the good ones - involve loss. The loss is sometimes sudden, an amputation if you will. A parent dies, a job disappears, a child gets in trouble in a spectacular way. Such loss is brutal, ruthless, but is easily defined. Something Has Happened.

But what of more insidious loss? What if the limb isn’t severed but is slowly withering? What if the leg is there, even normal in its outward appearance, but is without function? When these losses happen in the confines of a family or an individual’s essential self, the analogy to limb loss becomes a little less stable.

When an actual limb begins to fail, a person has options: physical therapy, medication, adaptive technologies or supports. In extreme cases, amputation is the answer to creating a new whole. But people and their systems aren’t that simple, are they? Think of the physical and emotional erosion of chronic illness. The slow train wreck of substance abuse. The withdrawal of intimacy in a strained marriage. These traumas – and that is what they are, even if they are not sudden – happen piecemeal, painfully.

Sometimes the loss is a realization, an “I will never…” statement. Not the whining kind that calls up a response like, “Don’t be silly! You have plenty of time/energy/money to do a, b, or c.” but the peaceful, mature knowledge that the time for a certain action is truly past, that the skills required are beyond a person’s reach, or that some dreams will simply never come true.

None of these scenarios are uncommon, and none are beyond our imagination. They number as many as the grains of sand on the floor of the ocean. The challenge comes, as always, in how we react. Is a full recovery possible? Sometimes the loss is too great, the energy required long gone. People do hit bottom, and they don’t always come back up. I’m not a character-Nazi, the kind of person who believes that a stiff upper lip and a strong work ethic can bring you back from anything. And not everyone is capable of adaptation (see Island of the Broken…Siblings, June 14, below).

But what of those who don’t want to stop walking, who dream of leaping once again for a well-tossed Frisbee? Even if you do persevere through loss, even if no one around you has any idea that recovery is in process, you still must face the absence. The leg is never going to function again. You leave an untenable situation. You strengthen the remaining limbs. Perhaps you find substitutes.

The challenge lies – at least for me – in the choice of a metaphor to understand your life from the loss forward. Do you choose the four-legged-but-one-is-impaired dog image, or do you radically remake yourself as the three-legged dog?

The answer means the difference between staying in the crate or chasing the tennis ball with your ears flapping and your coat gleaming. You may no longer be the fastest dog, you may no longer have AKC conformation, and you may even elicit pity from those who stare at what is no longer there.

But you will have found your balance.

And you will continue to run on your three strong legs, and the sun will feel good on your back when you take a big slurping drink of cool water and collapse, happy, in the soft, green grass.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sunday in the park with....Annie?

Sorry I’ve been away from the blog for a while…lots of activity and little introspection.

Large Dog, small child, and I have a new hangout these days: the dog park. With big shade trees and lawn chairs for the humans, two fenced acres and three swimming pools of various depths for the dogs, and mountain views and tennis balls for all, it’s well nigh perfect. Peace reigns (mostly) supreme. The venue offers lots of opportunity to try out that old truism about dogs and their owners resembling each other. I won’t bore you with a treatise on this, but I will mention three pairings of note.

On our first visit, only one dog demonstrated anything remotely resembling bad behavior – Angel, a wire haired fox terrier who yipped at everyone, jumped wetly and uninvited into stranger’s laps, and – horror- chased balls thrown for other dogs. Her owner? Loud, coarse schlumpy woman talking LOUDLY on her cell phone.

My favorite? Another woman, a fully robed Buddhist monk, shaved head and all, with an incredibly peaceful female GSP, a dog she’d rescued from a situation of indescribable abuse. Great conversation and connection between very different yet oddly agreeable dogs and girls here.

Most telling? That would be Annie, a mixed breed with more than a tad bit of pit bull, I fear. Annie and an escape artist Pom (word in the park is the dog makes her way to the park and her owners [sometimes] retrieve her after work), joined at the hip, ran amok. In and out of the water, on and off of people, over and under and around dogs of all sizes and shapes. When other dogs would indicate displeasure, the duo would duck under a table – often in between folks’ feet – and spread their mud and mayhem. The lowlight was when they propelled themselves onto the picnic table where small child was drawing…right onto the artwork, tearing paper, spreading muddy paw prints, the whole nine yards. Flexible, small child found this amusing. Large Dog did not, and in a most unusual move barked and defended...no biting or anything, but he let the truth be known. I looked around for the most likely owner and settled on a nearby mid-life woman, unusual for these parts in that she was fully made up and chain smoking, who was holding forth in the unmistakable, strident tones of Someone Who is Not From Here (I know, I don’t have any room to talk, but at least I try to fit in). I said, nicely like the good southern girl I am, “Is one of these yours?” She relied, “Yeah,” blowing out a big cloud of smoke and proceeding to yammer.

After the first visit, Large Dog assumed a role best described as WalMart greeter. If he smelled or heard a new dog coming, he’d trot to the gate, wag a welcome, and start the pee-on-the-tree party. He’d also go to the gate when dogs left and whine a good bye. On Sunday afternoon, we were hanging out under the trees enjoying our lives when Large Dog’s head jerked up; he shot to the fence and gave three strong warning barks. Care to guess who was on approach? Annie and Ms. Annie. We left.

So why is this telling and (I know you’re asking) why am I telling it? It is absolute proof positive that dogs know things we do not. That they notice subtleties, whether those subtleties are danger or – in this case – merely intense annoyance. That, left to themselves, they work out their differences and can exist in large numbers in relative peace. That they can communicate with each other regardless of background or breed. The big strong ones don’t need to use their muscle. They know when to deal with something directly and when to walk away. The small peaceful ones know that trouble may come, but that it will go as well. Some will even stand patiently by while lesser animals retrieve their tennis balls, to a point.

As for the others? Our siblings need some company on the island, after all.

This post definitely ended up somewhere other than the place I'd planned...I'll try again for my destination of choice in a day or so...stay tuned!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Island of the Broken.....Siblings

It's about 4:30 on a sunny Oregon Monday afternoon in the park. I'm lying on the grass with a couple of old friends (our daughters were babies together) and a new one. The girls are running back and forth between the little water park and the sand volleyball court, doing things with sand and water and laughter. Yep, it was as wonderful as it sounds.

Conversation has ranged over all sorts of topics, as it usually does. At this moment, we're enjoying Oregon Writer (OW) tell of her upcoming trip to parts south; she then recounts one of those "shake your head" stories about a sibling and the thought comes to me in a blaze. I blurt out,

"Don't you wish we could buy an island and send our problem siblings there?"

The talk comes fast and furious from all corners.

"Cool. The Island of the Broken Siblings!"
"And they could stay there forever."
"I have one, too. Do you?"
" Yep. Everybody does, I think."
"Narcissistic Personality Disorder"
"Passive aggressive"
"Republican" [That, from me, elicits a moment of sympathetic silence.]

Just think about it....all those people who make the lives of others difficult forced to fend for themselves for a change. Completely. Without Mercy. Lord of the Flies.

When I first began this blog, I promised "nothing but a view into life on the verge of fifty." Over the last year, a spate of friend's parent's deaths, illnesses in my family and those of my friends, and various assorted life changes in the worlds of those I hold dear have made a few things very clear to me.

And here's one of them: every family needs one person who can get things done, no matter what, with no expectation of appreciation. After seeing a friend though a crisis last fall, I even joked that this might even be a great business idea, a franchise thing - The Responsible Daughter.

Say there's a death in the family. People are flying in from all over. There's only about a cup of milk left. The widow's (or widower's) good black shoes need a little work. Wouldn't be a bad idea to call a cleaning service. And where are we going to put everyone? Hotels? Extra bedrooms? Are the sheets clean? With one call to The Responsible Daughter, you can have all those practicalities taken care of so you can do the things only true family can do. If had even one entrepreneurial cell in my body....

I know I sound flippant, but I don't mean to offend. And, yes, there's maybe a tiny little squeak of resentment in all of this. After all, what would it be like to be the one who falls apart? Who dissolves into incapability? Who gets taken care of? Sure, all of us have our breakdown moments, but some of us put down the tissue box and then go unload the dishwasher before we go to bed and get up the next day and get on with it. Pull weeds. Earn money. Cook food. Write Blogs.

I'm teetering on the edge of self-righteousness here, and that would be a valid criticism if I believed the ability to forge ahead was the result of effort or superior character. At an earlier time of my life, I might have thought so. "Why doesn't X do more?" "Why does B always have to do everything for C? Isn't D an adult, too?" But with every year, it becomes clearer that this may be more a matter of temperament, of hardwiring, than of will. Our siblings' passports probably were stamped for this particular Fantasy Island at birth, or at least fairly early on.

Some spend energy on fights, trauma, or individuals long in the past or on situations they have no hope of remedying or even influencing. To what end? To spread poison and negativity into the lives of those around them? I really don't think that is their intent, but it is often the result. Others, though neediness, histrionics, or inaction, insure that what needs to get done for their well being gets done. And difficult family dynamics are born. Such actions glue both groups to their misery...but, of course, in that misery lies their identity, no?

And the rest of us just keep going.

* A footnote: This is not an indictment of individuals with bi-polar disorder; it is a statement made by a friend during a conversation, describing a particular relative of hers, and as such was embedded in context unavailable in this post. BPD is a treatable illness. I know folks who manage this illness with grace and who would never, ever be sold a ticket to the island described in this post.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

If Jack Kerouac Had Driven a Minivan…more impressions from the road

On the Road, June 2-7, 2007

In Raton, New Mexico, I could only find two hotels willing to accept Large Dog. My favored one, “The-Award-Winning-Holiday-Inn-Express-Raton-
New-Mexico-This-Is-Bernadette-Can-I-Help-You,” only had three “pet-friendly” rooms, and all three were occupied my travelers with more foresight. Thus we were consigned to the Motel 6. Yes, it offered free internet, but all the Ethernet cables had been stolen (also, all the remotes). My neighbors were a cadre of bikers…don’t get too excited, ladies; they were the Austin Police Motorcycle Club. Who knew public service paid well enough to provide those fancy BMW rides? At least I felt well protected from our other neighbors, the ones Large Dog fretted about all night long: two black calves, a large sheep, and a vocal young goat in their own stinky livestock trailer.

Stick with me: it’s all about the glamour.

The next day brought, other than gorgeous glimpses of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo and the Front Range, lots of interstate driving and an inordinate number of dead deer. I never fail to get the Heebie-Jeebies passing through Colorado Springs, epicenter of our country’s freaky-evangelical right, birthplace of purity balls, home of New Life Church, a city so chaste that Focus on the Family gets its own freeway exit sign. And don’t forget the Air Force Academy, in the news recently for religious oppression. I made a stop on the edge of town to pick up a couple of things and the clean-cut, homogenous blondness of the place took my breath away.

Interesting that it’s just up the road from Trinidad, one of the more popular places in the US to have gender-reassignment surgery (and featured in a South Park episode, "Mr. Garrison's Fancy New Vagina"). Colorado’s motto should be Land of Odd Juxtapositions, no? Think of it: Telluride and Tancredo. Vail and Virginity. Ted Haggard and Trinidad.

I-80 across Wyoming is, well, straight, although it offers a stark loveliness (and more dead deer…antelope are obviously the more savvy species) in between the unfortunate mining sites. Someone dear to me believes that every glimpse of wildlife is a blessing, and after this drive I am bound for glory. Between Laramie and Rock Springs I saw something I’d never seen before, a mother antelope and her very, very tiny baby. I’ve seen young ones before, but never one this small. Amazing.

Laramie afforded the trip’s best graffiti, on a porta-potty in a lovely little park: Republican Think Tank.

Salt Lake City? It deserves a blogpost of its very own. Stay tuned.

The next to last day of the trip was a ten-hour push from SLC to Lakeview, OR. When I exited the Hotel Monaco after a wonderful two-night stay to detox after the string of one-star hostelries, I noticed the temperature had dropped at least 30 degrees, my first clue that an odd day was to follow.

Crossing the Great Salt Lake, as the rain began, brought to mind Terry Tempest Williams’ wonderful book Refuge. 30-40-50-somethings with eco-interests should consider this one a must-read.

As I began to climb, the rain began to solidify. “Hmm…sleet,” I thought. “Not unheard of in June, particularly at higher elevations. What a delight.” But eventually the sleet became snow, the snow I’d noticed on the mountaintops all around. Real snow. Heavy enough that I could barely see the tail lights of the giant semi in front of me. Again, this is not unheard of in June up in the real mountains. But on I-80? Maybe a little.

By Winnemucca, it had turned back to little sprinkles. Alas, no stop this trip in Elko, home of massive Basque dinners (lamb is always best - sorry, DYR, I mean SHEEP) and potent picon punch; this video was taken by someone at The Star, but I prefer to savor my punch at Biltoki's. Every time I'm there I hear Basque spoken and I imagine the handsome young man at the bar, whispering with the elders, is an ETA terrorist hiding out from Interpol. By Denio, the sun was out.

And then, the breathtaking drop into Oregon, the bit of road that takes you on a 10% grade over a mile of curves down one side of a hill.

Don’t look down.

Lakeview is a logging/ranching town from the 1880s. I predict it to be the next Oregon retirement/artsy boomtown. I always rest well here. The last time, I slept through an earthquake, literally. It doesn’t have a McDonald’s or a Starbuck’s…yet. It does have the Snak Shak, where five delightful high school kids teased and flirted with each other, granting passing politeness to the adults who waited for their takeout. And the Lakeview Lodge, my home for the night, where I drifted off to the smell of pinon and woke to the unmistakable zing of 28 degree high desert air through the open window. Large Dog and I strolled through the original red brick downtown to a great walk-up/drive-through espresso hut for some road juice, I left for my destination restored.

I do love the west.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Shaken and Stirred

Salt Lake – Lakeview - Ashland

I arrived at my final destination about 4 p.m. Pacific Time.

I feel like I’ve been jostled in a cocktail shaker by a very vigorous bartender. It’s going to take a couple of days for the sediment to make it to the bottom of the glass and some clarity to rise to the top.

In 36 hours, I’ve been in a city, a desert, salt flats, mining country, conifer forests, lush valleys, an 1880s logging/ranching town, and, finally, on the front porch with the warm setting sun painting the mountains golden.

In the same 36 hours, I’ve driven through sun, wind, rain, and snow. I’ve enjoyed temperatures ranging from 85 to 28.

I will say this: our country still has sights of stunning beauty in between the WalMarts.

I’ll write more when I catch my breath.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Irrigation;Rick James

Quadrifluence: when four disparate elements come together.

For example: You’re driving through some serious American agriculture. Then, out of nowhere, what does your iPod’s eclectic playlist, the one you’d forgotten about, throw at you? SuperFreak. Then, for the first time on your road trip, while giant irrigation contraptions are competing for your attention with ultimate funk, "the kind you don’t take home to mutha," you find yourself closing on the scourge of the American backroads, two RVs. Fortunately, you are on HWY 87 - the straightest stretch of asphalt in the world - so passing is a cinch. So there you have it: Farming, Rick James, Retirees, and The World’s Straightest Road. Spheres Collide.

June 2, 2007

I’d forgotten how beautiful the drive across the top of Texas can be. It’s been almost four years since I last made the journey – I’ve been flying to Oregon to save time – and while much is timeless much has changed.

After a first day cut short by a nasty thunderstorm, I tossed a Doggie Downer to Large Dog – he chomped it right out of the air – and set out this morning under a clear, sunny Amarillo sky. I’ve never driven this far alone before, and I’ve been giddy with anticipation. Time to think and sing and just be was the carrot I’d been dangling in front of myself for so very long. As I left town and the sky opened up, I kept thinking of ways I could describe it to those of you who have never been here, or cast it in a new light to those of you who may have crossed the Panhandle many times.

I decided to just go with impressions…the lazy writer’s answer to an eight-hour drive.

Amarillo itself is an interesting spot. It’s home to the Big Texan Steakhouse and Horse Hotel , Pantex, Cadillac Ranch,and some of the more intelligent people I know. This conundrum sets our theme for today: odd contrasts.

In my part of the state, you can feel the influence of the evangelical right, like oppressive humidity, with every breath. Interestingly enough, once the sky got big, I drove about three hundred miles and only saw signs for Catholic and mainline Protestant churches (Methodist and Disciples of Christ, predominantly; working hypothesis? These faiths are fairly prominent in major ranching families). I saw a couple of “Bible Churches” just before I crossed into New Mexico. This probably means nothing, and was a function of the roads I took (literally, in this case - highways 287 and 87), but still.

On a related note: Dairy Queen seems to be losing some ground to Sonic. Native Texans know this is HUGE.

It’s jarring to see brick veneer subdivisions, so common in NoCenTex, sitting in the middle of treeless plains. The ones out here are usually about ten houses rather than 100. I have friends who are builders, and such houses can be built to last forever, but many aren’t. In contrast are the old houses, both in town and off the road, be they rock, brick, stucco or wood. They’ve gone nowhere for over 100 years. Even the abandoned ones, missing roofs, have walls that still stand true. And to think how those houses were built, especially the farmhouses, in community rather than by corporation, gives rise to na├»ve but wistful thought.

Other culture clashes? A windmill, probably from the early part of the 20th century, still turning away on one side of the road, and a cell phone tower on the other. Motels from the 40s and 50s, some loudly proclaiming themselves “American Owned,” others offering Thai food. Yam Woon Sen in the Panhandle? This is new since my last pass through.

The visual contrasts in the topography can take your breath away. In the area near Amarillo where they collect helium, little hillocks pop up like balloons. There’s nothing like coming down off the caprock and seeing the dropoff in your rearview mirror. At Dumas, things shift again. Everyone thinks the panhandle is flat, but it’s not. Even when it looks flat, it shapes subtly; sometimes it mirrors the voluptuous rolls of a Rubens nude, other times the almost imperceptible curve of a child’s forearm.

And then there’s the color. At one point on the road, I was struck by the perfect deep rich terra cotta of the turned soil on one side and the lush (it’s been a wet year, you skeptical natives) green of the grassland on the other. Cadmium yellow sunflowers dance above purple thistle.

DYR has me thinking environmentally on this trip, and one of the sadder experiences was driving out of the state while trains of coal were passing me on their way in. Texas has an abundance of relatively clean-burning natural gas. It can be extracted with minimal impact on the environment if mineral owners care enough to write environmentally conscientious leases. But we’re bringing in coal from, among other places, Wyoming, Dick Cheney’s home state. Rant over, but still…

As ranching country gave way to agriculture, many fields sported signs boasting genetically modified crops. My “favorite”? "Americot - Cotton Done Right!" This is an area in which I’m woefully undereducated. I like my 100% cotton things affordable. And pesticides are nasty nasty nasty nasty. I’m wringing my hands on this one.

And then you cross into New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.

On cue: antelope and cloud shadows.