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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.

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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.)

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!”

Grade School Christmas Pageants

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When I was in Catholic grade school, we always had Christmas pageants. The spectacular was the year I was in eighth grade. Our parish hall had a stage at one end and a kitchen at one side. All parish and school activities took place there if they weren’t held in church or outdoors: enchilada dinners, volleyball games, basketball games, PTA meetings, plays, everything. Mother Mary Scholastica, who in another life might have been a Marine drill sergeant or a diva of some art, directed. The girls’ choir stood on risers at the back of the stage, with screens in front of us, singing appropriate carols while the Nativity was acted out in front of the screens. At the dramatic moment, the curtains closed briefly, the screens were quickly removed, and the curtains swung open to reveal us, in white robes and gold tinsel halos, singing the “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” chorus of “Angels We Heard on High.”

I’m sure that the impact on the audience of our parents was powerful. This was a working-class parish in the barrio of Westminster, California. Our fathers had built the school buildings mainly with their own hands. At the end of every summer, we students came to help the sisters clean the classrooms for school. Possibly no one in that hall had ever been to a professional live concert.

Then the “Three Kings” came walking through the hall: three eighth-grade boys who, incredibly, were not afraid to sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are” all by themselves. They were dressed in all the velvet and glitter the sisters could come up with; I wouldn’t be surprised if, like Scarlett O’Hara, they used the drapes. I don’t remember the third king, but one was my dear friend since-first-grade Jimmy Ristrom, who, already at that age, had a big bass voice, and a second was Richard Martin, with whom I was madly in love as only a 13-year-old can be. (The universe has blessed me with reconnection with both of them these past few years.)

I can still sing–and sometimes do when I’m alone–the alto parts to “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night,” and of course “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” singing along with a CD or the radio. I no longer believe in the religious underpinnings, but I still believe–as much as I believe in anything–that we can be better than we are, that we can make things better for others, that honest and unselfish love matters. I still value being open to whatever life brings, as was Mary in the Christmas story; seeing the possibility of greatness in the meanest surroundings, as did the shepherds; caring for those who need us, even if we don’t understand, as did Joseph. I still try to live by the best of what I learned in those days.

Look before you leap

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One of the smartest people I have ever known believes there is no significant difference between thinking and feeling.

I strongly disagree with this. It may be true for some tiny minority of humans–those whom Anne Rice has a character refer to in Interview with the Vampire as “detached persons in whom emotion and will are one.” But for nearly all humans, I think that emotion and thought can be distinguished by something that can direct the latter but not the former: reason.

You are experiencing the emotions of anger and fear as a result of the 2016 election. I understand that. Experience them, process them, express them, work through them. 

But PLEASE don’t act on them. Let them motivate you if it helps, but act on reason. THINK about what you’re going to do. UNDERSTAND the other side’s viewpoint. KNOW what the likely consequences of your potential actions are. DECIDE whether those consequences are worth whatever price you and others may have to pay.

Acting on emotion–primarily anger and fear, also hatred–is what brought many to vote for Trump. Meanwhile, many of us on the left bemoaned the right’s unwillingness to look at facts, to reason, to consider consequences. Let’s not follow in those footsteps.

Where do we go from here?

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I can speak only for myself, but I invite anyone like-minded to be part of “we.”

We pull up our big-girl and big-boy pants, we put on our ass-kicking boots, and we stand up for what we have always stood up for, though now we may feel more threatened in doing so. Those of us who are white put ourselves on the line, in danger if necessary and we have the courage, to protect the lives and the rights of people of color. (I can’t speak for those who aren’t white, and too many of them already have to do this every day.) We risk being uncomfortable, being outside our comfort zone, to step up, in whatever way we can, when someone is mistreated or bullied or harassed.

We don’t let friends or relatives or neighbors or coworkers go unchallenged when they repeat lies and bigotry. This is not the time for peace at any cost, for not losing friends over politics. If a “friend” supports policies that endanger those we care about, that person is not a friend. If we have to, we say that we respect the bond of family, but we can no longer appear to support (have contact with, communicate with, etc.) someone who cares so little about others’ welfare.

We donate what we can to the ACLU, because it stands for everyone’s rights, which is the only way anyone is safe.

We smile at and are pleasant and respectful to those in service industries. We nod to people on the street, or say “Good morning,” whatever their race, ethnicity, or gender. We open doors for everyone, and we say “thanks” enthusiastically when they open doors for us. We don’t take out our frustration with company or organizational policies on people who have no control over them. We give what we can, when we can, to help others. We pay attention to the human beings around us, and make their lives better when we can, if only for a moment. In a country that at the moment seems overrun with assholes, we aren’t among them.

This country has survived a Civil War, numerous other wars, the Great Depression, numerous other depressions and recessions, an era of lynchings, protesting students shot by their own government, corruption in high places, presidents who were inept or dishonest or maybe even evil, and more. It will survive this. But some of its people might not, and that’s where we must look.

And we must look to two years from now, when those who voted him in have had a chance to see what Trump has done. We can sign up for campaigns, we can donate if possible, to take back seats in the House and Senate.

There is work to be done.

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