Of Dogs and Men

Friends frantically inquired about the health of the patient who had suddenly and unexpectedly been diagnosed with cancer. “Had it spread?” “What were the medical options?” “Who were the best doctors?” “Anything we can do for you?”

Calls came at all hours and emails were heartfelt.  My husband is not prone to outward emotional expression, but in this case he needed and appreciated the support of his friends.  However, the inquiries were not about my husband’s health but that of his loyal hunting dog, Rugby.

Rugby is a field golden, bred to be adept at flushing birds and playing with children. He is a spoiled indoor-dwelling dog who sleeps in our room and has cushy beds throughout the house. He would perhaps be a little embarrassed if dogs could actually suffer from peer pressure. After all, he is a working breed not a poodle.

Rugbyfield

The outpouring of emotion came as a bit of a surprise to me. Men stopped by to comfort Rugby after his heart tumor surgery and retold their own stories of lost canine companions. Rugby and his human friends have spent time together road-tripping to Eastern Washington, shivering in duck blinds and hunting pheasant.  They spoke about their own deep grief and shed tears unashamed. It really made me think about the incredible bond between dogs and men.

I came to understand that for many, Rugby was an old friend in his twilight year. The bond between men and dogs is ancient and transcendent.  Homer composed The Odyssey nearly 28 centuries ago.  One of the more memorable passages in the epic is when Odysseus returns from 10 years in battle after being presumed dead. His loyal dog, Argos, immediately recognizes him as he enters his land. At this point in the story Argos is old and failing yet he still wags his tail at the site of his master. Even more telling, the great warrior Odysseus sheds a tear for Argos.  If my memory serves me right, it is the only outward display of sorrow from Odysseus in the entire story.

More recently there is President Nixon’s famous “Checkers speech,” notable for the emotional mention of a little black and white dog named Checkers . Finally, there was a famous orator from the 19th century, George Graham Vest. In a closing argument to a jury in 1855 he said, “The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog. A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer. He will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings, and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.”

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I watched in amazement as the profound human-animal connection emerged over the weekend in the next generation of our family. While it had not occurred to me, the possibility that yesterday was Rugby’s last hunt was not lost on my 18-year-old son who is off to college next fall. He scrambled to find time to spend with Rugby in the field in the closing hours of sunlight. My son returned home with a picture of he and Rugby with a look of deep satisfaction and a bit wistful. Clearly there is a special closeness between dogs and men with permission to lay emotions bare. Man’s best friend indeed.

Carol Lewis Gullstad January 28, 2013

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More on Helicopter Moms

More on Helicopter Moms

This article raises some interesting points about Helicopter Parenting. While milestones such as letting your child travel alone to the park or to doctor appointments seem important, even that concept is controversial. I’m recalling the debate that my former classmate Lenore Skenazy evoked with her article (and now book, blog and TV show) about “Free Range Kids”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenore_Skenazy

Fallen Heroes and Rising Sons

Did you hear the news this week?  Cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted he doped to win seven Tour de France races, and Heisman Trophy runner up Manti Te’o may have been duped into believing he had, and tragically lost, a girlfriend.

blog foto sportsYes, I know it was hard to miss either story. In my own home, football is often Topic A, so Te’o’s shocking story got lots of play. Back in Chicago, my brother logged long hours working on Armstrong’s broadcast, so my siblings, mother and I watched—and virtually “discussed”—Oprah’s show with great interest.

As a cynical journalist, I’m skeptical about both stories. Did Armstrong really tell the whole truth this time, and if so, what was his goal?  Was Te’o really the victim of a hoax, or did he invent his alleged girlfriend’s alleged death to gain sympathy before the Heisman voting?

We may never know the truth, but we do know that when we place sports heroes on such high pedestals, they inevitably fall. And, perhaps it’s our culture of sports idolatry that provides these athletes with “permission’ – at least in their own minds – to bend or break rules to their own advantage.

Whatever. Lance, Manti, and all of the alleged cheating, drug-taking, girlfriend-beating and dog-killing athletes really have no impact on my life. However, I now have two sons who long to become sports heroes themselves, and I fear the future.

In December, my high school senior learned he will play lacrosse at his first-choice college next fall. Ten days later, my college sophomore revealed that he’s itching to return to the gridiron, and started the ball rolling to change schools and suit up for football next fall.

Both boys are talented enough for Division III sports, and are hard-working enough to make a run for starting positions. If the kids can make it happen, my husband and I will support them, buy school sweatshirts and attend a few games.

I’m happy that they are happy, and I’m not terribly worried about injury, disappointment or their ability to balance schoolwork and sports. However, I’m petrified that they could become self-indulgent, entitled, troubled athletes like Armstrong and all the rest.

For the past two decades, I have tried to model honesty, integrity, empathy and self-control for my kids. Will those lessons carry over to the locker room?

As a parent, how do you reinforce the values that are so contrary to the American way? How do you keep a kid away from performance-enhancing drugs, when his coaches, doctors and teammates are pushing them, and they feel they can’t compete on a “level playing field” without them?

How do you stress that even if you’re a college jock, you still need to respect women? That as a role model for kids around the country, you need to behave well in all realms – not just on the field?

Don’t get me wrong: I am glad my sons have the confidence to set high goals and the determination to reach them.  I am very proud of their work ethic, and I hope their successes bring them much happiness. They are great kids, and I hope they will be great athletes.

However, I’m giving myself permission to worry, just a little, about the other forces at play. And, in the coming months, I’ll continue to use stories like Armstrong’s and Te’o’s to drive home some important messages.

– Linda Williams Rorem, 21 Jan. 2013
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Zombie Moms Having Fun

Ever feel like a Zombie lurching through the day? Perhaps your friends and co-workers have noted a glazed-over, far-away stare. Or, maybe it feels as though your brain can only perform base-level tasks even after a double-espresso.

If you can register a pulse and your flesh is not decomposing be assured that you are not a real Zombie. You may be experiencing a higher level of stress or sleep-deprivation than usual, but no one ate your brain and your symptoms are widely recognized by the medical community and Zombie websites (see frequently asked questions about Zombies).

lori zombie bride

However, there is an excellent remedy for those who are feeling a little dull and catatonic. When I am feeling like the “walking dead,” I follow the lead of a great “medicine woman.” Her methods have proven superior to alternatives such as a new job, new life or even dinner out.  Her approach is to shed the shackles of seriousness in the daily grind. Lori Steager Coe knows how to amp up the fun-factor in every-day life.

lori grease

In Lori’s profession as a membership director at a local church, she meets a wide range of people searching for meaning in life. She sees this as important but notes, “Everyone needs a healthy spiritual life to feel connected and be a whole person but you don’t have to save the world every second. You need to find ways to bring joy to your entire being.” Life is dynamic and finding balance is an ever-lasting series of adjustments.

Lori is a master-instigator of activities that most mid-life adults have long-lost on their radar screen. She has organized a roller-derby night, a 1950s dress-up Grease sing-along and gathered participants for the annual Global Flash Mob “Thriller” Day Zombie dance (http://thrilltheworld.com/).  She definitely challenges the comfort zone of her friends but they rarely turn down an invitation to a feel-good orbit.

However, there is a price to be paid for achieving balance, it means letting go of perfection. Lori said, “My house is a mess and my Christmas decorations are still up and will be for a while but something’s gotta give. There were times in my life when I was organized but this is not one of them.”

When you feel like a Zombie has overtaken your body, follow Lori’s lead and give yourself permission to do something a little fun and crazy. Revitalize your “Joi de vivre,” with your only purpose being fun and watch your clear-eyed look return in the mirror.

Carol Lewis Gullstad  January 14, 2013

permissionslips1@gmail.com

Blue Christmas and Dark Skies

As a kid, I never understand the line, “And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again” in “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”

Blue skies and white snowSeriously, most children find the holiday season simply magical—buoyed by TV ads, store displays and the promise of presents—but many of my adult friends feel it’s stressful and exhausting. Yes, we love the decorations, the holiday music, the cookies and the parties, but the season starts too early and lasts too long, the kids become frenetic and the pressure to maintain the spirit nearly wrecks us.

Now that the holiday season starts in September (at least according to Costco and Target), by late December, some of us are ready to take all the red decor and “paint it black.”

I don’t think it’s true blues or depression, as in the Stones’ song, but perhaps we could call it end-of-the-year-itis. So, let’s just give ourselves permission to celebrate that the season signifies endings.

In Seattle, it does seem that the “whole world is black” during December. In fact, we endured something like 27 rainy days last month (totalling 6.79 inches of rain, in a year when we received 10 more inches than usual).

Because we live so far north, we experience very short days as we near the Winter Solstice.  Those with office jobs hardly ever see the sun (even if it isn’t raining), which rises at nearly 8 am and sets at about 4:15 pm in late December.

Despite the dark, wet, crazy days, most of us parents try to act cheerful, putting one soggy boot in front of the other. For the sake of the kids, we decorate, we bake, we shop and we wrap. We write Christmas cards and cherish annual photos and letters from good friends. We attend parties and performances, and watch Elf and The Santa Clause over and over.

For me, however, the month is about finales. It’s the close of another calendar, the conclusion of a stressful season and a reminder of my father’s and brother’s premature deaths in long-ago Decembers.

The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics points out that more Americans die in December and January than at other times of year. Sadly, those number ring true close to home: during one week last month, three local friends lost their fathers and another lost a younger sister. Another friend’s mother was gasping her last breaths.

In an effort to spread cheer for my family, I blast Christmas music throughout the house, and keep my car radio tuned to a commercial-free holiday-songs station. (Of course, I need to tune out Judy Garland, Elvis and the singers who lament, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”)

As the craziness builds to a crescendo, I look forward to the midnight church service, with the reminder of the season’s real purpose and the candles that flicker during a soulful “Silent Night.”

Yes, I know, surviving Christmas is certainly a first-world problem.

My friends and family have money, gifts, decorations, beautiful trees and presents galore. We enjoy bountiful meals, chic clothes, good friends and fun fetes. We have roofs over our heads, and no flood or wind damage to deal with.

Most of all, we have each other.

So, every year, I try to re-center with family. After the Christmas roast and creamed corn casserole have been consumed, my husband, children and I pack the car and head for the ski slopes. The gifts, the cards and the cookies stay behind.

We relish several days of simplicity, seeing nothing but endless vistas of blue and white.  At night, we sit by the fire and read or play board games. We don’t receive mail or phone calls from solicitors, and the biggest stress is trying to beat the morning lift lines. We decompress, breathe clean mountain air and challenge our bodies on bumpy ski runs.

We make resolutions for change and take a break from over-consumption.

Then, back in Seattle, we open new calendars, with all the hope and promise of fresh starts and new life.  School starts again.

Friends and advertisers focus on health, happiness and weight loss.

The grass here remains green, and new plants start pushing through the earth. Stores sell blossoming bulbs, such as daffodils and hyacinths.

The days stretch out, and by the end of the month, we’ll have sunlight—should the rain cease – until 5 pm.  Spring will follow soon, and the dark days of December will become a distant memory.

– Linda Williams Rorem, 7 January 2013
PermissionSlips1@gmail.com

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