Bee in My Bonnet

Coffee Table Inspiration
Coffee Table Inspiration

It happens the first week in every January, and here it is again, right on schedule: I must have lettuce. Lots of it and all kinds, and other crunchy greens, and an embarrassment of colorful, raw vegetables. It’s not about cleansing or weight loss, but instead is the natural consequence of a month of indulgences now catching up with me: Enough already! screams my gut every January.

The other annual event happening right on schedule is the tireless search for inspiration. It’s all around me I’m sure, smacking me upside the head like a two-by-four, and still it eludes me at the moment. (By the way, I am weary of photographing the snowy landscape and it’s only January; I know.)

Just before my senior year in high school my mom and I duked it out over the 12th grade curriculum offerings. Take Home Ec, she urged: you’ll need it.

Exqueeze me, but what about AP American History, which meets in the same time slot? Don’t you want me to be, you know, smart and well prepared for the rigors of academia for the next four or more years?

Trust me, she said: Home. Ec.

In the end I took history but later wondered whether that was the right choice. For one thing, the teacher was a burned out ex-Army sergeant-turned-coach, now nearing retirement and completely indifferent about commuting anything to a roomful of pimply charges. (You might say he lacked inspiration.) Somebody in the history department at Memphis State University—now the University of Memphis—Xeroxed their class plans and exams and handed them over to the coach, who merely passed them on to us, so he admitted out loud and without shame: our parents’ tax dollars at work. I don’t remember a single important moment in that silly class, and by the end of the year felt ill-prepared to earn any credit at all towards my freshman year of college, at least not in history.

But for another thing, later on in my parenting life I found myself in the company of people with skills, people who could make things with their hands, who could actually sew, and take in waistlines and let out hems, and create all kinds of things from gorgeous textiles; I could do none of that. Instead I was the unfortunate mom who would never make the Best Halloween Costume Ever from scratch, or sew a shepherd outfit for the Christmas pageant, or design imaginative summer art projects for vacation Bible school, or even hem a pair of pants except in the most crude, amateurish way. (And by the way, please don’t look to me for help with your American history homework, child.)

I wondered out loud whether I should have taken my mom’s advice after all. Nah, somebody else said: you’d only bake cookies and sew a stupid pillow case in that class.

Okay, well I happen to know my way around in the kitchen because it interested me and I took it upon myself to learn when I was in my twenties. And I’ve never felt inspired to sew a pillow case, ever. So maybe AP history was the least terrible choice, anyway.

If I can’t always make things myself, I’m still privileged to know so many people who can, people who throw pottery and paint and sculpt and hook rugs from scratch and create imaginative television and outdoor art installations and design store windows and edit magazines and write poetry and take exquisite photographs and work in multimedia and make beautiful calligraphy and cheese and design buildings and interiors; people who act and sing and dance and choreograph and expertly play the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin and the clarinet and the drums and the piano and all manner of other instruments; and don’t forget people who transform the culinary arts into high art: they are all inspiring, a multitude of dots along a creative continuum. I can’t imagine life without the company of these people, even if some of them are far, far away; wonder who among them took Home Ec.

Writing does not always feel like creative work to me, nor did complete immersion in classical ballet always feel like art to me, but pushing through a slump always seems important. On bad writing days I imagine myself wadding and throwing papers across the room right and left were I not using a virtual platform, on better days I pretend I’m Evelyn Waugh, putting down the words and pushing them a bit, as he described his own work.

Today, though, there is no Waugh in me. There is a little dip, a hiccup, call it a lack of inspiration. The problem could be winter in Vermont, on which I blame nearly everything. Today I give you my average best (now, there’s an oxymoron), and hope this bee in my bonnet will soon find its way out, spilling vibrant colors from my fingertips and onto the canvas; I know the colors are there somewhere.

‘Til then there is laundry to fold and furniture to dust and a dog to walk and Basmati rice to boil, which will make the house smell divine at least; I can do all these things despite my Home Ec deficiency. And you never know—I might be inspired.

 

1.1.17: Time to Press Reset

New Year's Eve Morning 2016
Perfect Light, New Year’s Eve Morning 2016

Some people claim they don’t need a special calendar day or a personal milestone to turn a new leaf, they can do it any time. I don’t possess the self-discipline for that: positive change comes to me on occasional birthdays or after emotionally significant events, mainly. For the time being New Year’s Day will do.

A friend and I once stood in the kitchen of her big, old Southern home with one eye on our boy toddlers as they scurried around and fired finger weapons at each other. She asked what I planned to do after mine no longer demanded every waking moment of my day. “I’m taking up golf,” she quipped. I could not tell whether she was serious or joking: this particular friend did not strike me as the kind of person who’d choose golf as a post-mommying avocation. She had a beautiful new baby grand sitting in her living room; it might have been for show as so many are, except she was also an accomplished pianist in another life. “You should take up the piano,” I said, only half joking. She grinned.

Our unspoken words went something like, it’s funny how much of ourselves we’ve given up for the privilege of full-time parenting these children.

I could not have known at that moment how in a few short years events in my life would reconnect me with my own performing arts past, how life would hand me rich and varied and terrifying and wonderful and tragic and deprived and fulfilled chapters, still in the make.

new_years_eve_walk_5

When I moved to Vermont just over four years ago I didn’t have an inkling how bad things would get for me, and soon after for my beloved Clarence-the-Canine, but remained as optimistic as my character would allow. I knew winters would be rough, had no idea how rough, and discovered over the course of four of them I’m not really up for the challenge. I also discovered how many privileges I’d taken for granted when I lived down South. And I didn’t realize how difficult it’d be to find connections. Nor how simple to find the most important one of all. I discovered people here are the same as the people there, with a couple of caveats.

I also underestimated my own grit and determination.

new_years_eve_walk_4
The Most Important Connections

new_years_eve_scout_1

Last year was difficult, although I don’t need to tear out my hair and thrash and wail about it. I was grumpy and will keep on being grumpy ‘til a few promising new sentences unfold. At least give me my grumpiness in the winter. I’m still hopeful for 2017.

new_years_eve_woods_1

I feel about as bad physically as I ever have; it’s time for sanctions. I’m a little worn down emotionally, too: being bitten in the face by an anxious shepherd was harder to process than I imagined. I want to feel better in 2017, starting now.

new_years_eve_walk_3

I’ve missed spending time outside, a thing every dog demands. Thank the universe for Scout-the-Lab, a good dog with a remarkable disposition, who’s already blown that whistle: more heart-thumping time outside in 2017.

new_years_eve_scout_3
Superhero

I’ve written more in the last year than ever; some of it was good, some not so much. I want 2017 to be the best year of writing thus far, with new outlets for writing.

Time, resources, and circumstances have made it difficult to assuage my culinary passions, as silly as that sounds coming from somebody who lives with a chef. I want to reconnect to the kitchen in 2017.

I feel called to help somebody who needs it; I hope Scout and I will undertake this together in 2017.

new_years_eve_walk_1

I’ve found beauty through the lens of my camera; I want 2017 to show me more.

new_years_eve_woods_2

I enjoyed an unexpected and happy reconnection recently with a beloved mentor I haven’t seen in a couple of years. I want to stay connected with people important to me in 2017.

I also want to practice civility in 2017, and hope the rest of the world will too, but most especially my fellow Americans. We can’t afford not to be civil to one another, especially now.

Come on, winter: let’s get it done. Let’s turn over a new leaf in 2017.

sycamore_stories_masthead

When the World is Nine Below

Not Nine Below Scout
Not Nine Below Scout

It’s tough on Tennesseans. And Texans. I remember the first time the mercury dipped below zero when I was living in my first home here, my delicious little lakeside cottage in Vermont’s exquisite Upper Valley: I recall the first time I felt pain when I tiptoed outside, the first time I heard my shepherd Clarence-the-Canine cry out when he stepped on frozen, spiky snow in our front yard (on with the shoes, sorry they make you feel silly—better than busting open a pad). We’ve already felt that kind of cold with winter not yet officially arrived. Feels too soon to me; mercifully, it never seems to last long—the cold that is. As for the other unmentionable, Vermont feels distinctly how C. S. Lewis might call it along about March: always winter, never Christmas.

I digress. Three nights ago I awoke to loud, percussive popping, like shotgun blasts too close. It took my foggy brain a while to decipher the noise and calm down, or at least not worry too much about it, the unmistakable sound of our wood deck boards outside in the cold, shrinking, shifting, sliding around in protest against nails that fastened them in place on a much warmer day. That kind of cold demands respect, nine-below-zero cold, the kind that can split boards, or damage warm-blooded membranes and stiffen sinew in seconds; my joints had been trying to warn me it was coming for a while. Here is a bit of wisdom that belongs in a primer for Vermont pilgrims: do not worry too much about the explosions when it’s nine below (or colder); you probably won’t die.

Meanwhile the unworried person beside me slept deeply and peacefully, but I could not. Instead I lay awake and listened to the blasts spaced sometimes at long intervals, other times coming close together, and worried about another creature of slight build and tawny hair, doubtless also awake downstairs, a Texas dog who’d have to face the music outside in a few short hours.

This will be a new and perhaps painful experience for you, Scout, as it was for Clarence before you, and for me, I thought. I made a mental inventory of supplies to track down in the coming days, used my worry to get a fix on some coordinates: Clarence’s old shoes are in the plastic bin, I think—will they fit Scout? Will he trust me enough to let me fiddle with his feet? I replayed the warning on last night’s news: in cold like this, don’t let your pup stay outdoors any longer than it takes to warm up your car. Five minutes.

What if I can’t get the shoes on him? I flipped through old, dog-eared folders in my head overflowing with nuggets and tidbits, things I’ve needed at one time or another in my professional life as a copywriter and later filed under “Archives.” What was it about Labrador feet? Some kind of webbing that makes them adept in the snow? Or was it water? Or was that another kind of dog? Wait, the vet had only just said Scout looked more Chessie than Lab to her. Do they have the same kind of webbing?

Five minutes? How can I explain this to my dog? Or my car?

However perilous a picture the mind (my mind) can paint lying awake in the darkness before dawn, it is never that bad. Scout did consent to the shoes for our first, brutal walk in the very early morning, but objected to them shortly after we launched. By the time we came back inside he was wearing only one shoe, the other three spilling out of my coat pocket. Scout did his doings in about fifteen minutes and seemed none the worse for wear, while all around us the sound of baying neighbor dogs, seasoned Vermont dogs, resonated in the frozen woods. Just before we navigated our way to the path that leads once again to the safety of the cottage, Scout made a quick diversion, took a side trip in the snow, rolling around joyously on his back, ears aflop, tail awag. Nine below is but a number, he insists as he lies there grinning at me. But okay we’ll go in, he finally concedes, standing again on all fours, shaking the snow from his coat and licking bits of it from his smiley whiskers.

Our little house looks inviting from the street with warm lights glowing through its windows in the darkness; inside the stairs have separated ever so slightly from the pretty slate landing while the house tries to shake off the cold.

Nine below, I had almost forgotten your beauty: you make twenty degrees and sunshine feel divine.

Stranger in a Strange Land: A Brief Doggish Essay

scout_5

scout   verb | \’skau̇t\ – to explore an area to obtain information; noun – one sent to obtain information

Saturday morning came early, bitterly cold and windy, but clear; we’d practically forgotten how the sun looked. We stood squinting and shivering in a nondescript outlet mall parking lot with many other hopeful families, waiting, waiting, waiting for the white transport van from Texas that would arrive any moment and deliver to us our travel-weary companions, canine refugees of sorts: Labs and Lab mixes, puppies and adolescents and adults, on the road for 2000 long miles, soon to be discharged into the loving arms of happy, silent humans (and a few pint-size noisy ones)—happy dogs, silent dogs (a few barking dogs), bewildered dogs. Some were practically home when they were carried or walked off the van, others had miles yet to go.

Scout is a good name for a yellow Lab mix: it also happens to be the name of one of my favorite literary figures. Scout is a worthwhile verb, one that promises adventure and excitement, but best of all, Scout is a noun and he is ours. So let’s try this again, with belly rubs and other indulgences, but mainly plenty of quiet time to adjust.

And what an adjustment: from Texas to Vermont, where Scout arrives at the precise moment the first genuine cold snap of the season rolls in. A light layer of snow from the last small weather event still frosts the landscape in these parts, but tomorrow we’ll awaken to a winter wonderland—a trial by snow for Scout, if you will: if the weather gods get it right, he’ll be in it up to his elbows our first time outside in the morning.

neighborhood_4

Today there is filtered sunshine, no wind, and a neighborhood to explore. This evening there will be still another human to meet, more tweaking, realigning, settling, obtaining information: the ice maker dumps with a clatter at regular intervals (what is ice?); fresh vegetables sizzle and sputter loudly in a hot sauté pan (only good can come of this), a capricious heater cycles on and off (it is not to be trusted, but the warmth radiating from it feels exquisite), and a mystifying cacophony wafts up spiral stairs from the basement in unpredictable outbursts (more data needed). And outside? Outside are creatures busy under the snow, beneath layers of spent foliage, in a network of tunnels under Vermont’s rocky soil—and they can be heard, or maybe smelt, occupying a keen canine noggin with a fervor that makes him forget the cold, if only for a moment.

Meanwhile we humans are obtaining a little information of our own: what are these floppy ears? What is this short hair? What is this impossibly affectionate demeanor? What is this polite compliance with human wishes? Welcome home Scout. We have but one simple message we shall try to convey in your own language: we already love you like crazy.

scout_1

neighborhood_2

scout_2

neighborhood_3

scout_3

scout_7

scout_6

 

Hope and the Human Spirit: Postcard from Home

Hope and the Human Spirit: Postcard from Home
Market Square in Knoxville, TN, circa 1910

Knoxville’s downtown Market Square once held an imposing masonry building that served as a center for thriving commerce, including a beloved farmer’s market that purveyed meat, poultry, dairy, produce, and flowers trucked in from the city’s rural outskirts. A 14-year-old boy set it ablaze lighting a cigarette in the late 1950s, goes the story, gutting most of the building and sparking a controversy that would persist ‘til the city finally demolished what remained of it in 1960.

So ended an institution that began in 1854, and which never fully recovered. Sure, the square was revitalized in recent years in the same way so many downtowns have undergone renewal, but the demolition of that building marked the end of an era. Nowadays there’s an outdoor farmer’s market a couple of days a week during the season, set against the backdrop of hipster shops and restaurants that dot the square; for better or worse, life goes on.

There is no formula for grief: everybody grieves uniquely, and that is the truth. I’ve written about it before, how I wiped away the fog from my mirror after horrific losses: family, home, my hard-won business—some of them gone instantly, the rest in a matter of weeks or months. Loss takes no prisoners: it surely knocked the wind out of me, leaving me coughing and sputtering, blue in the face, bent double with my hands on my knees.

After what seemed an eternity I drew in a long breath and stood erect again, but sifting through smoldering ruins for surviving bits found only unpleasant epiphanies to keep me company. Your life has been a train wreck for years, they jeered. Worse still, they continued, you’ve become ugly; there is much work to do, and it’s getting late.

Loss continued to follow me down a new path. It persisted in the shadows behind me for a thousand miles, across time and space, and stubbornly insinuated itself in horrifying ways. What choice does one have, except to soldier on?

And just when I imagined I might not survive, there was hope, in the guise of a beautiful outstretched hand that insisted otherwise. I was more fortunate than most.

How much can the human spirit bear before it’s damaged for good, though? This question has troubled me all week while East Tennessee burned, with stories of unrelenting devastation and human suffering unfolding all around. It’s an epic tragedy long familiar to others, but this time struck close to home: the foothills and mountains where my ancestors settled a century and a half ago—is everything gone now? The kitschy hamlet where my family vacationed in the summers lay in ruins, its citizenry shell-shocked, livelihoods snatched away in minutes, wildlife and livestock wiped out, officials standing dumbfounded before the press to tick off names of the missing and the dead. We will rebuild, they insist while volunteers pour in. I know this refrain, and it is exhausting—the ruins will smolder for a long time, forever for some.

Monumental losses still haunt me like the drone of bagpipes, always there no matter how ardently one wishes to silence them, even in the subconscious: but then life’s melody unfolds on top of the drone, sometimes majestic in its tenor, rich with texture and beauty and joy, and occasionally hope.

Tragedy defies reason always, discriminates never. But every exhausted, beleaguered life in this world needs hope, because the alternative is unthinkable. And life will go on.

Talk to Me, Dammit: A Lamentation

IMG_20150908_185102
Disconnected

A wise friend once observed she could live life without ever, or at least rarely, leaving her house if she chose. She could buy groceries and other goods and have them delivered to her, arrange for her car to be serviced, set up play dates for her children, and manage countless other tasks from the privacy and convenience of her home. And for this woman in particular a “shut-in” kind of existence might have held a special appeal: she was mama to young triplets, two girls and a boy. And she was terminally ill.

Her life held so many challenges when I knew her, the logistics of getting everybody where they needed to be—on time and prepared—second only to taking care of herself. Helping her wrangle children and belongings one sunny morning only a couple of days after her routine chemotherapy, I mused what a monumental challenge parenting her brood must be—I don’t know how you do it so seamlessly, I said. Sweeping a gorgeous curly lock from her tired face, she quipped in her endearing deadpan, You’ve gotta have a lot of bags.

I found that so comically reductionist, but it made perfect sense at that moment when we were shuffling towels and children and floaties from our cars to the neighborhood pool for a playdate. Beyond clever life strategies, though, my friend possessed a disposition that eschewed a cloistered life: she longed to be part of a community of people. She made it a point to leave the house and do everything the conventional way, with face-to-face encounters in all our neighborhood venues and beyond. And when she could not leave she brought the community to her home in weekly morning gatherings.

She’s gone now and her children are grown. She made that important observation about community more than a decade ago, when the web had already facilitated so much for so many, and when the emerging smartphone technology was changing how we communicate with each other. In her obituary my friend opined that we’re put on this planet to help each other; when I reflect on her words now, I believe they were prophetic. We pay a heavy toll for crawling inside ourselves and forgetting the real, three-dimensional world all around us. I don’t mean nature, or even the built environment, but the world of people.

Are we losing our ability to talk to each other? My own Millennial grew up with a multitude of devices at his fingertips; they are a fluid extension of him. But there are times I want to reach through the ether, grab him by the collar, and shake the stew out of him. In our almost-daily video chats, despite the magical technology that truncates the thousand miles separating us to two feet, there is sometimes more dead air time than talk. While the line is open he simultaneously texts or messages friends (and even people he does not know) from various platforms; sometimes he says “hang on,” other times he engages without telling me, so I’m confused as to whom he is speaking at that moment. Once in a while I hand him some tough love: I’ll hang up and you can call me back when you’re ready to talk to me <click>. That feels so mom-ish and old fashioned, but still: I can’t imagine indulging him this way helps him develop the skills he needs to become a responsible adult, a road he’s still navigating. Or maybe it does; maybe the mere “presence” of his mom means as much to him now as it did when he was a child, even if there is no meaningful exchange of ideas.

Still, it’s a disquieting habit. I helped raise this kid and therefore presumably own it, along with his dad. He represents others of his ilk, a generation for whom the communication game has changed, and the rules are no longer recognizable, at least not to me. Being brushed off by someone less familiar to you than a member of your own family, when they owed you at least a modicum of decorum or civility but failed to disengage from a piece of hardware, is more difficult to wave off; these people feel damaged to me.

But I also wonder whether our fantastic modern devices are damaging the rest of us, who were not born wearing earbuds. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I recently observed another couple at a local eatery who were each buried in a device for nearly their entire meal. They did not speak, coming up for air only long enough to shovel down bites of food, then turning back to whatever important thing held their rapt attention. We grinned and shook our heads.

I admit to drinking the Kool-Aid, too, as a compulsive user of small electronics. And I produce digital marketing content for a living, working in an industry that has grown up around this technology and helped shape it: you could say I’m part of the problem on a global scale. But our devices are intoxicating: they deliver the world to us in the palm of our hand. Who can resist that Siren? And paradoxically they’ve disconnected us, I think. To be sure, there are times when that is the better alternative—in a crowded doctor’s waiting room or on a jetliner, for example, when the need to create a barrier is important and real. On more than one occasion I’ve buried myself in a device to avoid an encounter with an undesirable; a book would have stepped up to the plate years ago, still a willing companion from time to time when you remembered to bring it. The phone, though, is small, powerful, and it’s always there. And when you live in the middle of nowhere as I have in recent years, it can actually help you feel connected, that is assuming you can find a signal.

Our devices make us feel evolved, but I question that condition when they appear to isolate us from each other instead of drawing us together. Look at me when I’m talking to you, your mom once insisted. Wouldn’t it be something if this one familiar refrain, forgotten in some circles, may finally be so important it saves us as a species? After all, maybe we really were put here to help each other.

Tower of Babel: A Lyrical Reflection

Tower of Babel, M.C. Escher, 1928; woodcut
Tower of Babel, woodcut; M.C. Escher, 1928

 

We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.—Albus Dumbledore

She is ugly, irksome, annoying, galling, reprehensible…I could go on. She is instantly recognizable even from a distance, satisfying to mock, deride, and pelt with stones. She is worse still when she stands before you. And on that day you let the rock fall from your hand and tolerated her, you suffered a fool gladly.

I admit to it: I submitted to her and she sank to the lowest depths of my expectations. She answered me at the end of a horrific transaction, bit me in the ass while I was still licking the wounds on my face. I let it happen, I watched the transaction unfold like the train wreck it was. The passerby could not avert his gaze, saucer-eyed, clicking his tongue, relieved it was not he entangled in the wreckage. Occasionally he made an observation about the cause of the crash, but most often he was wrong.

I put myself in harm’s way because of a vulnerable creature who stood between us, listening to her with my mouth open but without a voice while she roared on like a massive diesel engine, nonsensically, diabolically, stating her case without merit. She did not care about the damage and suffering she left in her wake, only that her own needs were satisfied, licking the greasy bits from her chin, a loud belch issuing from her gullet. I recognized the stench, I have smelt it before.

Then before she took her leave she flexed her muscles in a menacing way, and looking over her shoulder warned me not to test her.

So I set about sweeping up the shards from the wreckage a pile at a time, knowing I’ll be stooped to this task until my back is breaking and my hands are calloused. I’ll bag up the detritus and kick the remaining bits and pieces to the curb, resolving to be ever watchful, to read the fine print. She will be long gone by then, already surveying the landscape for a new prospect.

Together with others (there are most assuredly others) I enabled her and in so doing gave her confidence and power. But she lives in a fantasy realm, surveying the outside world through a distorted lens: she has only to tempt the wrong fate before her imagined world crashes down around her, and in that instant the truth will come into crystalline focus: she will suffer losses and they will be monumental. She will lash out angrily, as she is wont to do, and heap blame for her lot in life everywhere except the one place it belongs.

Beware her: she will beseech your charity and goodwill, she’ll wink at you and call you a kindred spirit, touching her hand to her brow. But when you shine a light on her she will transform, revealing her true self, and then she will vilify you to satisfy her own delusions.

Entitlement, I will be watching for you: never again look to me for goodwill, nor charity. Leave, and take your needy minions with you—Self-Righteousness and Greed—and feed your hunger elsewhere.

Licking Our Wounds: Hindsight, You Win.

Hindsight
Hindsight

I once had a dog who destroyed the back seat of my brand new car in under ten minutes, reducing it to softball-size pieces of upholstery foam; a friend was with me and the two of us had darted inside the grocery for a moment. The dog, a beautiful Siberian Husky gal named Chaika, was all giggles and grins when we returned to the car. Chaika was a love, and that is all. But she came to my family as a shelter dog with an unknown past. One thing was clear about her: she was anxious as hell around food. Mealtime was the only time to be careful around this dog, who would as soon take your hand as she would the bowl of food you placed on the floor for her. In hindsight the food anxiety was probably symptomatic of anxiety in general, including separation anxiety. At the time I considered myself a seasoned handler of dogs; Chaika proved me wrong. Dogs will shame you that way.

Over years, and then decades, I’ve had dogs who peed and pooped in the house seemingly for sport, who destroyed thousands in books, furniture, and other objects, who behaved badly at the end of a leash in spite of diligent obedience training, who were antisocial around people, or antisocial around dogs, or both. I’ve also had well-mannered dogs who were a joy to be around. You could say dog problems are really people problems, and I’d be inclined to agree, but most every dog in my life has been complicated in some way, just like we are. Still, each one has enriched my life immeasurably; my last German Shepherd Dog, Clarence-the-Canine, was mine alone and came closest of any to being a “soul dog.” When Clarence died in 2013 I could not imagine my life without him, and the void he left was every bit as horrific as I guessed it would be and then some.

Teddy was my first shepherd and came to us (my ex-husband and then-seven-year-old child), as something of a rescue. His past was known, but problematic, his bloodlines a mystery. Turns out he had an intussusception—a dangerous “telescoping” of the colon that’s often fatal. The surgeon who repaired him also removed an entire plastic bowl from his gut during the surgery, an indicator of big problems in his previous life. He came through it all fine, healed well, but emerged a changed dog, one who was no longer recognizable to us. And while he remained loyal to a fault, he could not be trusted around other dogs or people because of his aggression. One afternoon he escaped an obedience exercise and bolted across our front lawn, laying into our next-door neighbor, whom he damaged badly. Things could have ended worse, thank the universe they did not. There can be no shelter in a family for a biting dog, period. In Teddy’s case, we foolishly believed there was hope for rehabilitation; he proved us wrong time and again, and because we cleaved to this silly notion people were hurt.

Warden bit me in the face Monday night in an episode I’ve replayed too many times to count. There was nothing impressive about the circumstances, no warning (or there was and I missed it), only a lightning-fast but powerful bite followed by a toothy snarl after an episode of affection, leaving a gaping hole in my nose, an anguished chef, an upset dog, and ending with a prolonged visit to the ER and a sleepless night. I bear Warden no ill will; he has no recollection of biting me and has spent the first few days of his mandatory ten-day quarantine with us confused about disruptions to routines we were already establishing, but also affectionate and friendly. I am sad he bit when he might have reacted to whatever was bothering him another way—with a warning growl, or pulling away, for example. But in that one moment he sealed his fate: he is forever ruined now as a family dog, nor could he ever be trusted in the office where he was to go with me every day—this was to be Warden’s important work. And he certainly can’t live here with us now.

Could I or we have seen this coming? Initially the answer was emphatically, no way. In hindsight, there were red flags reaching into this dog’s past. Our thinking was clouded by our emotions, so determined were we to welcome Warden into our family. He is a beautiful animal with distinguished bloodlines, and that is where our affinity for him must end. He will remain here for the duration of his quarantine period and then we shall foster him for the time being; he will not be euthanized.

However heartbroken we are for this awful turn of events, we are as awakened by it. Will we have another dog eventually? I hope so. Will it be a shepherd? Probably not, but maybe: it’s too soon to decide.

Five years ago I resolved to trust my gut when surveying the landscape around me, because I’ve been right every time I suspect something’s up; I did not stay true to myself in Warden’s case. I hope hindsight will not bite me next time around.

licking_wounds_2_a

Writing with Precise Language: Why it Matters

Precise Language
Precise Language

In my professional life writing and editing copy for a digital marketing agency I read a lot of other copy floating around the ‘net. And while the volume of trendy, quippy, or just plain prosaic writing in the cyber sphere may come as no surprise to many, what surprises and disappoints me is how much of it falls under the mantle of elite publishing houses, a phenomenon that somehow gives it more credence. If you’re thinking I should climb down off my high horse, rest assured I don’t adhere to the philosophy that all published copy should be scrubbed clean of colorful slang or modern conventions, far from it: I find the evolution of the spoken and written word through history fascinating. And of course the intended audience of any piece of writing matters. But our language is a barometer for who we are, after all. And using imprecise language (because it’s easy, it’s recognizable, and everybody’s doing it) is a trend that mirrors the bigger, more disquieting habit of indifference we’ve embraced collectively for a couple of generations now; it reaches into most aspects of our cultural experience as Americans.

I’ll use clothing as an example. When I was a kid I recall my mom dressing for routine doctor appointments. Visiting the doctor was an occasion: she piled her hair into a beautiful French twist, pulled on her stockings under a tailored skirt, and left the house in a pair of pumps and a blazer with a string of pearls around her neck. It’s what you did when you visited a professional in the 1960s; dressing up was a show of respect for a trusted expert who you hoped would in turn deliver sound advice. This relationship was precisely defined, and my mom’s attire—and presumably her doctor’s—helped to clearly demarcate its boundaries.

At five I was to fly across my erstwhile home state of Tennessee alone to visit my grandmother, who would be there to greet me at the gate; I was a little terrified, considerably thrilled. Getting my fancy new travel outfit was as much an occasion as the plane ride itself. Have you seen anybody dressed up on a jetliner lately? How about at the theatre? Many folks still observe at least a modicum of decorum for an 8:00 curtain, but I guarantee you’ll find at least a few who look like they grabbed a rumpled something off the floor for a night out, even in a highfaultin venue. As a former classical ballerina and ballet teacher, I assure you the artists on the stage appreciate the effort you made to come and see them in the first place, but also the show of enthusiasm in your deportment and behavior (read: you dressed to the nines, turned off your devices, and applauded like crazy during the curtain calls).

The clothing metaphor may be a stretch, but you get my drift: indifference, thou hast congealed among us—in our manners, too. For example, when did ‘no problem’ come into common parlance as an acceptable response to ‘thank you?’ It’s what most of us say, but comes across more as a retort than as true politesse. Say I’m nitpicking, but quipping ‘no problem’ after an expression of heartfelt gratitude implies whatever act of grace preceded it might have been a problem, and don’t you forget it. This trend bothered me for years until I finally gave in and assumed there were no strings attached for most—it’s simply what people say anymore: your waiter sets a beautiful bowl of steaming pasta on the table before you and you thank him; no problem, he says. But the rarer ‘you’re welcome,’ still catches me off guard. And to be fair, ‘you’re welcome’ had its own day as a new expression in England in the 1300s, but with distinctly friendlier underpinnings than its modern-day “problematic” replacement.

Which brings me to writing. Every year Lake Superior State University publishes a list of banished words; it’s worth a gander if you’ve never looked. If one could distill useful writing tools to a short list for a newbie, this little gem might top it. And were you to find a common thread among these words and expressions, you could call it banality. (Can’t you hear your prep school English teacher’s echoing admonitions about hackneyed language?) An expression or turn of phrase that no doubt seemed clever and appropriate—even precise—in its original context, is now besmeared across the ether, rolled around, moused over, used to pieces, until it is beaten beyond recognition. It is destined for the waste bin—or at least the laundry, like the rumpled clothing on the floor, only we’re too lazy to pick it up and put it where it belongs: instead we press it into service time and again because, well, everybody’s doing it. Sounds like indifference to me.

But imprecise language can also make you sound stupid. You can call a thing iconic without knowing the word ‘icon’ comes from the Greek for ‘likeness’ and has specific connotations within the Greek Orthodox tradition, and through time has come to mean a standard that represents a larger group, but you’re more likely to misuse it as ‘renowned.’ You can say something was literally the last thing on your mind, when you meant to underscore it was the last thing you were considering on a longer list of thoughts, not that an object called the Last Thing was perched on this other object called My Mind. Or you could say it’s literally raining men, when you meant it figuratively, unless men are actually falling out of the sky like rain. Or you could start a sentence with the expression, ‘there are no words to describe,’ but chances are many perfectly good words can describe whatever thing you were about to name—in this case using imprecise language gets you off the hook and requires exactly zero effort on your part.

One has only to turn to the 2016 presidential campaigns to recognize the ill effects of imprecise language: not only have our candidates set the decorum bar very low in this election (practically scraping the ground), but the candidates themselves, or their speech writers anyway, insist on using the same words and expressions time and again, until they play on continuous loop on our screens, across the airwaves, and in our heads. Speaking only for myself, I’ve stopped listening; time to sweep those words into the waste bin.

Why does precise language matter? Because words have meaning. You can pull on your day-old jeans with the sweatshirt you peeled off before you climbed into bed last night. Or you can open your closet and choose something more refined. Or thumb through the dictionary or thesaurus for the word that means precisely what you meant to say. The path of indifference is well traveled, and expected—and that is one compelling reason not to take it.