January 30, 2015

Dog smiles

Saffron greeted me with the usual wag and that inimitable smile when she came through the door for a visit this week.

A wagging tail from the dog you love is entirely logical. But how can a dog with no lips smile?

Come on, girls, smile for the camera
Saffron is my son’s 15-year-old whippet. She is without a doubt Garrett’s dog, but she and I have had a love affair since she was a tiny white ball in my lap. When Garrett graduated from college and left for the greater world, he insisted that we get another dog “so Dad won’t be lonely.”

Enter Greta, our almost-8-year-old other whippet. She, too, was once a tiny (brown) ball in my lap. Now she uses her doe-like Garbo eyes and completely un-Saffron smile to get me to share my chair with a much-less tiny her.

I’m a journalist, so my world revolves around communication. I’m pretty good at communicating with humans, but talent I admire most is communicating with other species. Dogs have their own grammar, their own vocabulary and their own favorite expressions.

Once in a while, I do pretty good job talking dog. Usually, however, Saffron or Greta just stand there wagging and grinning – and I’m sure saying “Come on, biped friend, you can say it.”

In the other direction, however, there is no communication problem. I know instantly when either dog wants a Milk-bone, thinks I need a cuddle or wants to go out to pee. (Definition of “speed”: Whippet going out to pee and back at minus degrees.)

Which brings me back to that smile. I can see it, I can appreciate it, but I can’t explain it. I’ve tried over and over to take a smiling-dog photo, but my whippets put on their classic-beauty face whenever I pull out a camera.

Our Garbo-esque Greta
I’m not even sure that a dog smile is a physical quality. It is more of an apparition. Like the ghost of a long-departed friend. You want to believe in it so much that quite willing to see what isn’t there.

Saffron and Greta smile at me with blunt-force subtlety. It’s just a sparkle in the eye, a cock of the head and a tongue peeking through a half-opened mouth. But oh, do I know they are happy with me. And I reciprocate with my bowed human lips and those telltale lines under my eyes. Then I break into a petting frenzy, make silly sounds (“whose a good girl?) and trot off for another Milk-bone.

Dogs may have used their keen senses to hunt for primitive man or their fangs to protect him from hungry predators. But we long ago invented telescopic sights and strong fences that do the job without consuming a sackful of kibble.

No, it is neither nose nor fang that earns dogs a special place. It’s the smile. We can’t really define it, but we certainly know why our hounds have it.

Dogs make us happy. 
- Clyde

Their Maggie

I read somewhere, once, that you never get over your first dog. And I think that's probably true. If you are fortunate enough to start out with a wonderful pup, no other dog will ever compare. Likewise, if you begin with a horrible or difficult beast, well, you probably won't ever go back to owning dogs. Lucky me, I began with the former. A springer spaniel only a few months younger than I was, Maggie and I grew up together. She was, technically, my dad's dog, but in the way that nothing that's yours is ever really yours once you become a parent, Maggie was mine. She patiently let me dress her up and treated my cat as her puppy. She cheered from the sidelines when I invented the little known sport of closet sledding (which involves a sleeping bag, a very long closet with hardwood floors and a good running start), rested her chin on my knee when I sobbed out my childhood miseries and didn't tell a soul when I almost burned down the house hanging Strawberry Shortcake's red dress over the bare lightbulb in my closet to make my own "darkroom". She slept on the foot of my bed almost every night of her life, even when she was so old she had to be gingerly lifted up onto the mattress each bedtime. I can still feel the emptiness in the pit of my stomach that I felt the day I came home from school to fine her gone. 

After Maggie came a series of disastrous dogs. Chessie, who was cute for about 6 weeks and then turned out to be a slightly sadistic, poofy creature who had absolutely no interest in our family. Chip, a dog so neurotic that I'm sure the trail he wore between the gates in our backyard will be found by future archeologists and mistaken for a defensive ditch built by some ancient culture. And the two labs Will and I acquired in our first years together, Morgan and Hennessy. They weren't exactly disastrous. Although that time Morgan ate one out of each pair of shoes I owned was pretty bag. But they were never Maggie. Not even close.

And so years of doglessness passed. Until one day, six years ago, when I got a bee in my bonnet to get another dog. The right dog this time. A dog just like Maggie. Literally. Another springer. A female, liver colored springer spaniel to be exact. Why mess with a good thing?

Nigella, who almost instantly became "Jelly" when a two year old Evelyn misunderstood the name we had given the dog and declared "My Jelly!" at their first meeting, is the dog that got me over Maggie. She is very like the original, in looks and temperament, although different enough to hold her own, equal place in my heart. Like Maggie, she thinks our cats are her puppies. Like Maggie, she is patient and kind and always ready to sit with you, in good times and bad. Being dressed up in a tutu or covered with stickers or used as a pillow is fine by her. She would rather be wearing a headband and socks curled up next to you than be alone without the embarrassing garb of a dog much loved by children. When she is not at my feet, she often sleeps at the end of Evelyn's bed, which was Briton's before her and mine before that, long ago. Same bed, (almost) same dog.  She is their Maggie. She is the dog my children will never get over. And thank goodness for that.


January 23, 2015

In School

We call it “throwing a wrench in” around here. It doesn’t happen often, although often enough that we have a dedicated expression when it does. A game changer. A sudden shift in the plan. Sometimes even an about-face. It throws us into chaos for a while, and then it all settles down into a new normal. I have to remind myself of that, that soon it will be normal. Not the same normal as before, but normal. Right now, well, right now I have only just remembered that it is Thursday,  because where did the week go?

Next week I start a new job. In the midst of a full load of grad school classes, children at two different schools on two different schedules, an ever growing list of afterschool activities that require the kind of ferrying I swore I wouldn’t ever take part in and a part time graduate teaching practicum gig, I am taking over a much neglected library at  a K-8 school. It’s crazy. Utterly crazy. And yet, I can't wait to start.

Our family balance has always been centered on the fact that I am here. Here for sick days and vacation days, late starts, field trips, midday concerts, afterschool conferences. It was a decision we made long ago, and one that has worked well for the 12 plus years that we have been parents.  And while it was always the plan for me to go back to work, that was supposed to be later. After school, after the trial run of this practicum, when we had all (myself included, myself especially!) had time to adjust to the idea of mom being more than just mom.

But fate has a way of throwing that wrench in. And this chance was too perfect to pass up. A library. My library. My own library.  So it’s back to school I go. Twice over. As a student and as a librarian. I have an excellent cheering section. They all seem to think I can do this crazy thing. This full time plus half time plus another half time plus all the other things that need to get done in a day thing.  They will pick up slack, I will let things go, someone will forget and event or an activity or a paper that’s due (it will most likely be me) life will be crazy. And then, after a little while, it will be our new normal. Until the next wrench comes along, of course. 

January 22, 2015

Back to school again. And again. And again.

By now, I should be used to the first day of school. I have, after all, had 60 of them.

There are few events in life that so mix anticipation with trepidation as the first day of school. In elementary school, I hoped to see friends who summer parted from me, but then I worried that the multiplication tables had changed over the break.

In high school, I was relieved that I wouldn’t be dodging Mom and Dad’s long list of summer chores, but I knew that I was too geek and not enough cool to sit with “the” crowd at lunch.

The rotten trick of college is that you have at least two first days each year. And the more letters you stack behind your name, the more of those first days you face.

As an undergraduate, I sweated that I would somehow so screw up that the draft board would send me an invitation to Mekong Tech. On the other hand, parties were never so memorable as when I was just under the drinking age.

The draft was gone by the time I was a junior. All I had to worry about is whether I would learn enough to actually get a job. But I had a beautiful coed on my arm and could look forward to decades of marital bliss. (That’s one dream that came true).

A sane person would have stopped there – as I did for 17 years. Graduate school has a way of sneaking up to you, though. Doubly so if you put a decade between master’s and doctoral programs.

The first day of term in grad school is a blur. Sometimes you have so many research projects you don’t notice the end of one semester and the beginning of another. You know you are on break, however, when you are franticly scrambling for whatever someone will pay you to make a dent in that tuition bill.

Of course, it’s a crapshoot whether the classes you signed up for will be anything like the titles in the catalog. I signed up for a “cultural studies” seminar to learn about minority audiences. I took a seat next to the guy in a Mao hat to learn how traditional media folk were ruining the world. Traditional Mao-hatless folk like me.

Now I’m a professor who not only faces two first days each year, but dons a cap and gown for two graduations each year. I like the graduation – its harvest time in higher ed. And after each graduation I swear I’m going to update my syllabi right away and have a complete set of PowerPoints ready long before I would see the next wave of students.

Yea, right. I’m a journalist. Skirting the finality of a deadline is in my DNA. The Journalism School is amazingly full of busy professors the weekend before class starts.

But just like in elementary school and my many other first days of school, the stresses of starting over now are more than balanced by the joys that come with them. I love that I’m on the other side of the pressure cooker. While I’m scrambling to prepare assignments, I get to watch the wide-eyed new undergraduates, the mentally-already-graduated seniors and the overwhelmed grad students find their places. And I get to offer advice, assurance and consolation. Because I know:

Been there, done that -- 60 times.                                 -- Clyde

January 16, 2015

A Pause, A View

It’s not a place to stand and ponder, not in a house full of children and dogs and cats and the occasional tortoise winging up and down the stairs, always in a hurry to get somewhere else.

It’s more of a pause. A breath in and out. A moment to recharge. 

The window is at its best in early morning, when the sun is not quite up and the Portland sky has not yet decided what kind of day it will be. Sunny? Cloudy? Stormy? A little of each probably, but for this moment, it's still an unknown. The tall arborvitae that edge our yard block out the neighbors house in the sparse light, but a break between our trees and theirs allow a wedge of morning sky. Streaky clouds tumble toward the mountain, which you cannot see from our window but which my inner compass knows is just off to the right of our view. Little wisps of pink and purple drop through as the sun rises and our neighbor’s twinkle lights, always on, become fainter as the daylight expands to outshines them. It happens so fast, in the space of the few minutes that it takes me to begin the day.
Down the stairs to put the kettle on, up again for a sweater to fight off the chill of a house not yet awake.
Down to make the coffee, up again to get dressed.
Down to wake the almost-teen, up to wake his sister.
Down to start breakfast and backpack checks and bus runs. 

From dark to light, night to day, punctuated by the trips up and down the stairs that it takes to get everyone up and fed and out the door for the day.

And then pause, once more, when the house has settled into the stillness of only me and the day ahead has settled into that mix of cloudy and sunny with a chance of rain that defines most of Portland’s days.

Sticks in the window

I never really thought I would see beauty in a winter-bared tree trunk. But I suppose it is really a matter of how you frame it.

I learned about forests in the Northwest, where the definition of “tree” is something very tall, very green and very determined to stay that way in the coldest of winters.

When I first saw Missouri in the spring, I was amazed by the lush green canopy that stretched over me like an organic tent. You don’t really walk through the forest in the Northwest – you thrash through the low fir and spruce limbs hoping you won’t get a handful of needles down your shirt. But Missouri is on the edge of the Great American Hardwood Forest – that leafy cathedral through which movie Indians crept silently and under which the village smithy stood.

Of course, the movies seldom have winter editions. Hardwoods are lush in the spring and then spectacular in the fall when they burst out into color – just before losing everything. By November, that great leafy cathedral has become a bunch of naked sticks.

But I have come to love those sticks. This time of the year, I frequently find myself staring out my window in Zen-like silence, just watching the sticks.

We have five huge windows that look out on the forest. Between me and the trees is a deck, a heated birdbath and a couple of feeders. And umpteen-dozen squirrels, as many woodpeckers, and troops of nuthatches, wrens, jays and finches who enjoy my largess. Plus the odd raccoon or woodchuck come just to torment my dog.

My wintry oaks and maples are not just figures in a still life. The are the cast of a full-fledged matinee feature.

The view of those “dead” sticks through my windows is an ever-changing passion play. I’m constantly amazed at how tree trunks so bare can shelter an ark-ful. In the Northwest, I could hear that birds were up there, but seldom saw more than a flash of feathers.

Here the lack of cover means neighbors of any species have little choice but to politely nod to each other. So I stand at my window and raise my coffee cup to the creature of the moment.

It’s a Midwest kind of thing. Not a bad one, at that.


January 9, 2015

The time that John Steinbeck saved my bacon

When people ask my why I no longer blog, I struggle to find an answer I’m willing to give. It’s a little like having someone ask how you are, when you are having a really crap time. Do you tell them that you’re on week three of a cold that won’t go away and your car window got broken in and everything that could go wrong lately has? Or do you shrug and say “oh, I’m fine, how are you?”  The second would be my answer. And so when I’m asked, I shrug and say “oh, I don’t have the time anymore.” Because that’s the easy answer. But the real answer is that I just…cant. I can’t write. I can’t even think about writing without a wave of panic rolling through my body. So I just…don’t.

But that’s not working either, for many reasons. So, if you will indulge me, I’m going to use this sad, neglected blog for a bit of a project, between my (far superior, as you’ll see) writer father and me, to try to push myself, however unwilling I may be, back into writing.

This was supposed to be an essay on writer’s block. But as I have writer’s block, I struggled to get much past the first sentence. Which was “I have writer’s block.”  After some really awful and painful drafts, I gave up and instead, I started reading, and I came across a list of advice famous authors have given on the subject. And much to my surprise, John Steinbeck saved me. I never really liked his books, which I know is sacrilege, and I doubt I ever would have looked to him for advice, but this story, about turning your writing into a letter, got me going.

And so…

Dear Dad,

I have writer’s block. Actually, I’m not sure that “block” is the right word for it. This is more along the lines of a giant wall of ice in my head, which paralyses me and takes my breath away and causes a constricting under my ribs, just to the right of my breastbone, every time I sit down and try to write anything beyond the things that I have to write. I know you understand what I mean when I tell you this affliction physically hurts. Not everyone would.

Because I can write. I’ve been writing papers for grad school and articles and letters and notes to teachers. But I can’t write. I can’t weave words together about a place or a time or a dream. I can write what I have to write, but I can’t write what I want to write. And it feels…hollow. I feel hollow. As if some very vital piece of my soul was left behind somewhere between Vermont and Oregon as we drove across the country to our new life here. As if I’ve had some traumatic injury that has caused me to forget an essential part of myself. Like the victim of a stroke who has to learn again the basics of walking.

I know very well that when I stop writing, I go a little mad. Small things that should not matter become heavy on my mind. Big things become overwhelming. And yet, I cannot make myself write. In fact, knowing that I cannot just sit down and write until my stress levels cease tossing and turning makes it worse. The stress builds on itself. The boat lists to this side and then to that. The waves come over the deck and lap at my toes. I tell myself I just need to jump in. Start again. Write…something. But by now it has become so large and looming that instead, I curl up into myself.

This began as an essay on Writer’s Block, the first in our project of a shared writing space. But even with a deadline and the knowledge that, at the other end, was you, understanding and gentle, I could not make it come. My brain seems to have atrophied, everything seemed halting and stilted.  Even this has been hard, although somehow, the form of a letter makes it slightly less intimidating. I dislike sharing the personal pieces of myself. No, not dislike, shrivel from. I suspect that most people who know me, or who have even met me, think of me as an extrovert.  I have spent my life playing the role of one. I’m the optimist, the chatty one, the non-boat rocker. But actually, I am terribly shy. I read recently about someone who described himself as an introvert disguised as an extrovert and I realized that is me. I act the part of an extrovert so that I don’t have to really, truly, share myself. And this is, perhaps, the very core of me, and therefore the hardest thing to share.

However, I’ve made it this far, through this letter and, if you are reading this, past the terror of clicking “post” and putting it out into the world. Instead of feeling frozen I feel, well, still frozen, but a bit less so. It is still a struggle. I am still unsatisfied that the words do not simply roll out. But chokingly, sputtering and wheezing and I’m sure inelegant, they did come.

Dad, professor, writer and ... uh, something

I’m a congenital writer.

Some people write because their third-grade teacher threatened to send them back to kindergarten if they didn’t finish their essay. For others, like me, the taskmaster is deep in their brain. We don’t write when we have to, we just have to write.

Which makes my predicament worse. I have writer’s block. For the past few months, I’ve dawdled, surfed the Web and pretended I had more important things to do rather than channeled my thoughts through the keyboard.

Oh, I’ve churned out the necessary reports, comments to students and emails that go along with being a college professor. I’ve even spent days agonizing through a research paper that should have taken a few hours. But the cathartic release that congenital writers long for wasn’t there.

I know writer’s block all to well. For 25 years, I made my living piping prose from my brain to my fingertips as a newspaper journalist. Writer’s block is common in newsrooms. You see it in the glazed eyes of the reporter who paces the office and refills his coffee cup before it is empty. It was so universal that we would commonly talk about it or even implore “I’m blocked!. Someone help me out here.”

When I was the editor, the someone was me. My prescription usually was to assign an emotion-fueling feature story. The best story is told by the person who lives it. The young woman who honors her mother by volunteering in the cancer ward. The youth with a deep passion for skateboarding. The old vet still haunted by memories.

As a reporter, you only have to repackage those stories. The “lede” jumps out at you somewhere during the interview and you find yourself rushing back to the keyboard to let the words flow.

Dam broken. Writer’s block cured – for now.

My daughter, Gillian, is also a professional writer and also suffering from writer’s block. Neither of us has now has a kindly editor to throw us a feature-story bone. But when we talked about it at Christmas, we devised our own plan.

Each of us will write a weekly essay on the same topic and post it on this blog. We will be forced to write, block or not.

This week’s topic was as simple as it was effective: Writers writing about writer’s block.

I think it is working. So I can say this with guarded optimism:

More to come…