Shooting the Dog

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I have on occasion made reference to my dad “shooting the dog.” I find that–at least after the circumstances are explained–whether people are shocked at this divides pretty much along age lines: the older the person, the less strange/odd/shocking they find this.

First and most significant, the dog was my dad’s. Tippy liked my brother (Dennis, 11 months younger than I) and me, and our mother, well enough, but even though it was Dennis’s job to feed him, Tippy was definitely Dad’s dog.

This was in Orange County, California, in the 1950s. We lived in a tract house, but we were on the end of a cul-de-sac, on 1/3 acre. To one side on “the Circle,” as we called it, we had a neighbor, but on the other side about 1/3 of the diameter of the Circle was undeveloped. It was probably railroad land, because the tracks ran along it, and along our property. Beyond, there were (when we first moved there and for a few years after) orange groves. So it had a rural character to an extent.

At that time and place, a dog that bit people three times had to be put down. Tippy had two bites reported. If he was reported a third time, animal control would take him away and euthanize him.

So my dad shot him. He did it out at the end of our property, one shot, and he buried him under a tree there. He probably cried, but we weren’t there to see.

Here’s the thing: Tippy was his dog, so it was his responsibility. Better that Tippy die quickly, accompanied by his person, than be taken off to some scary facility to be killed by strangers. But also, my father felt the responsibility for training Tippy, and the training failed.

Some younger people, particularly city people, are horrified at this story. Older people, or particularly people with some rural background, understand it. They might or might not have made the same choice, but they understand.

There’s no great moral here. But if you wanted to know what kind of person my dad was, at his core, this is probably my best story.


Reflections on Parenting

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Someone famous once said that “life is what happens to you while you’re doing something else.” That’s the one that keeps biting me on the butt. I tried very hard, for example, to live in the moment with my kids, experiencing who they are at each stage. I’ve tried to live in consciousness of Emerson’s words: “The days come and go like muffled and veiled figures sent from a distant friendly party, but they say nothing,
and if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away.” But still I found myself frequently wishing for the kids to move on, out of needing to be changed and fed and tended constantly, out of needing to be watched constantly, out of needing homework help every night and transportation everywhere and clothes bought and washed and put away, out of needing me-me-me.

And they did move on, in a heartbeat, in a blink, faster than I could have imagined when I was mired in their constant needs. Each one of their days brought me the gift of who they were that day, and if I didn’t see it as a gift, I lost it. But Emerson has words for that, too, and if I had to state my philosophy of life, I’d choose this–indeed, my LJ, Blunders and Absurdities, was named from it (just as this blog is named for an Emerson quote):

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; Forget them as soon as you can.

“Tomorrow is a new day; Begin it well and serenely And with too high a spirit To be encumbered with your old nonsense.

“This day is all that is good and fair. It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, To waste a moment on yesterdays.”

One Story among So Many

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She was 15 years old. She lived in a small Midwestern town, in a Catholic family, in the days before Roe v. Wade. The only sex education she ever had was what she saw on the farm or overheard from other girls. When she had her first period, a couple or three years before, she had no idea what it was and thought she was dying; when she turned to an older girl for help, she learned what it meant and how to take care of it.

When the cute older guy at school asked her out, she was flattered. When he said, “This is what people do on dates,” she went along. When she didn’t get her next period, she was terrified, because she had overheard those other girls.

She couldn’t tell her parents. The boy never spoke to her after that first date. She had nowhere to go.

I don’t know who told her about someone in town who took care of this problem for unmarried women (and, I’m sure, for some married women whose health or finances couldn’t withstand another child). She didn’t tell anyone about her problem, but that name undoubtedly was whispered among the girls and young women of the town, as such names were in small towns and big cities throughout the country. Fortunately, this name belonged to a real doctor. And so she had a safe, but highly illegal, abortion.

She never, in her whole life, told anyone this story–except me. She’s gone now. Everyone who knew her then is gone. I’m not sure there is no one who will judge her, if they read this story. But I kept this confidence for nearly forty years, and I have revealed it because she didn’t die from a hemorrhage or sepsis, and she wasn’t made infertile, and she didn’t have her future destroyed. Later she married and had children. She always felt guilt, but she never felt regret, for the abortion. She said to me, “What else could I have done? What would have become of me?”

I answered, “You did what you had to do, Mom.”

The Dark Wanderer with the Gypsy Eyes

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This is a poem from my mother’s commonplace book. She didn’t mention the author, and I have never found anything online. She never said that she wrote it herself, but I don’t recall that she said she didn’t.

If he came back again, what would you do?
He made no promise to be gone forever,
And in the soft wet earth along the river,
There are your sandal prints, betraying you.
You made another choice, and it was wise:
The man with the wide hands and sober voice
Who does not know you wept, making the choice,
For the dark wanderer with the gypsy eyes.
You must not walk the river path again.
Even the willows know you and could tell
The lie that you have lived so long and well.
For though your house is tall in the white lane
And your heart quiet now and your arms true–
If he came back again, what would you do?

The man with the gypsy eyes, who might come back, was my father. They had their first date in June 1940, when he was 19 and she was 18. He first proposed in August 1941. Throughout the war years, apparently the course of true love did not run smooth: they were on again, off again; he was traveling around from job to job (because of rheumatic fever in childhood, he was turned down for every branch of the service); at one point she was engaged, or semi-engaged, to a solid man from a fairly well-to-do family. This poem certainly spoke to her of the life she might have and her unease about whether she could be happy in it.

She chose to wait for the wanderer from the working-class family, or he came back in time; my parents were married in August 1945. The course of the marriage didn’t run any smoother than the courtship, but if they couldn’t live harmoniously together, they couldn’t live contentedly apart, either. With one small hiatus, they were together till his death in 1986.

(Previously published in my LiveJournal.)

Serious Literature and Me

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The older I get, the more difficult it is for me to read “serious literature”–nongenre fiction. I find it full of people whose problems seem to me ones that could be easily solved by a bit of rationality, a soupçon of imagination or thinking outside whatever box society or they themselves have put them in, and application of the maxim “It’s not all about you.”

I have always been interested in psychology, and quite good at it in an amateur way, but I would be a terrible therapist. After two or three sessions, all my professional knowledge probably could not keep me from slapping the client upside the head, and, like Cher’s character in Moonstruck, shouting, “Snap out of it!” Here’s your problem, here’s what you can do about it, now go and do it or not, but don’t come back to me.

Or maybe not. I’m usually able not to do that to my friends and acquaintances who confide in me. And they do confide. When I was 14, my boyfriend said, “If everyone was a body part, you’d be a shoulder”–because everyone, even my mother, leaned on me and cried on me. (My mother told me when I was an adult, regarding this, “You were always such a certain little thing.”) I have a strong component of what some women complain is a male characteristic: tell me a problem and I immediately start trying to solve it. I try to control that since becoming aware that some people just want to be listened to, but for myself I have usually not told people my problems unless I would welcome their suggestions.

My spouse and I are far from perfect people and we have flaws and problems like most, but we often agree that people make things unnecessarily hard on themselves, and others, by failure to use the three tools listed in my first paragraph (rationality, imagination, it’s not all about you, repeat as needed). We humans are puny little creatures, and the universe has so many ways to make us suffer, to kill us–why do we do it to each other?

So when I try to read nongenre fiction, I often want to throw the book across the room–the reading equivalent of Cher’s slap–by the third chapter. Yes, these books often reveal the human condition, near-universal truths about us puny creatures, and that’s why I can’t read them. At least with real humans, should the right situation arise, I can say some kinder version of “Snap out of it!”


Child development, critical thinking, parenting

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From my reading of history–the history of ordinary people living ordinary lives–and my own observation and experience, and contrary to what many “experts” claim, I think that teens of at least near-normal intellectual development would be capable of some basic critical thinking if it was introduced to them and expected of them from the beginning of their lives. But the fact is that the vast majority of authority figures–parents and teachers looming large among them–don’t want critical thinking from kids; they want kids to take what the authority figure says as gospel.

Our society has this utterly bizarre concept that kids can suddenly step into adult roles at some arbitrary point–all of them at the same point for the same action, the points for various actions having no relationship to each other, and in many cases without their ever having any preparation. I have encountered parents who make virtually every decision of any significance for their kids, then send them off to college with the expectation that the kids can suddenly make good decisions. I have encountered parents who never allow their kids to say ”no” to them under any circumstances, then expect the kids to be able to say ”no” to peers, older predators, bad influences. We say that kids have the maturity to understand and form intent to commit murder and should be tried as adults, but they don’t have the maturity to understand and consent to sex.

You don’t learn to make good choices, to say ”no” to pressure, to handle money, to control anger, to responsibly judge whether sex is right in this situation–to do any of the things we expect of ”adults”–overnight, as a function of going off to college or turning 18 or 21 or whatever. You learn those things day by day over many years. You don’t learn critical thinking overnight, and you don’t necessarily learn it in four years of college–or else every college-educated person would be good at it, and we know that isn’t so. You learn critical thinking by, well, learning to think critically, and that can be taught, in an appropriate context for the child’s age and development, from babyhood on.

But teaching a child (in a development-appropriate way) critical thinking involves something that many parents and (in my sad experience) most teachers are unwilling to do: tell the child, openly, clearly, sincerely: ”I might be wrong.” We told our kids we might be wrong throughout their growing-up years.  And we also told them that other adults might be wrong, or in some cases, certainly were wrong (which did not endear us to some of their teachers). The benefit we’ve found is that our kids (now well into adulthood), even during their teen years, have been rather more willing to trust our word on things than seems the average. They know that if we say, “I think that…,” ”I’m pretty sure that…,” or ”Everything I’ve experienced tells me that…,” we mean exactly what we say, no more and no less.

(This previously appeared in part in my Live Journal.)

Reflections on “A Christmas Carol”

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“A Christmas Carol” is my favorite story. The following  combines some earlier writings with new thoughts, and particularly reflects the politics of this year. I publish it with hope.

Scrooge is an Outsider who has let his perception of that control his entire life. He has let it shrivel his soul. And he is redeemed. He is given gifts that the rest of us can only imagine: a second look at the moments that made him feel an Outsider, a second look at the moments where he chose the path of Outsider even when another path was open, and perhaps most important, a look at the lives of people who have chosen not to live as Outsiders, even though poverty or lack of social status makes some others see them that way.

These people are Insiders, not by being taken into others’ lives but by giving themselves to others–every one of them: sister Fan, “who had a large heart”; employer Fezziwig, who “has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil”; sweetheart Belle, who releases him from their engagement, “with a full heart, for the love of him you once were”; the Cratchits, who celebrate the mother’s cooking of what little they have and the father’s earning of his pitiful salary and their all being together; nephew Fred, who gives his uncle “the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not,” not in hopes of fortune for himself, but “if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Uncle Scrooge, how are you. If it only puts him in the vein to leave his poor clerk fifty pounds, that’s something”; the men who spend their Christmas Eve soliciting for the poor, because “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

Once when four old friends and I talked for hours, one of them, a hospice nurse-counselor for the terminally ill, asked us some hard questions. One was “What is your purpose in life?” We all answered as honestly as we could, and at the end, I observed that the common theme I heard from us all was reaching out from ourselves to “do” for others.

“‘It is required of every man,’ the Ghost returned, ‘that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!'”

That’s the only kind of afterlife that makes any sense to me–one in which, as Marley says, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

And the only kind of LIFE that makes sense to me is one in which we do “walk abroad among” our fellow humans, making them happy, rendering their service (of whatever kind) light; in which we truly say, with Marley:

“[Humankind is] my business. The common welfare [is] my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, [are], all, my business!”

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Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

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