Archive for the ‘Personal Note’ Category

Man’s Best Best Friend(Updated)

Friday, December 4th, 2015
Frisco and Sterling

Frisco, muzzle white with age, and brother Sterling

Those of you who know me personally will understand that among all my various endeavors, one of the relationships I cherish is the one I enjoy with my dogs.  In fact, one could truthfully argue that among all the things in the world I have known and have loved throughout the course of my life, there’s been nothing more constant than the dogs.  As life goes, on occasion it is right to make an accounting of one’s choices and decisions.  My life is full of things I would like to improve, but there’s one area in which I think I could scarcely do much better.  I make no bones about the fact that when it comes to canines, I enjoy them all, but if were to be sentenced to do a re-run of life in the body of a dog, I would choose to be a Great Dane. They are man’s best best friends

For those of you accustomed to my political rants, I suppose it’s safe to say you might believe I’m cracking-up.  That may or may not be the case, but what is certain is that I tend to say what I mean because I feel obliged to relate the truth of a thing.  Dog preferences are subjective, and as individualized as the human race, but for me, looking back across the span of decades, living my life as I have, I’d have no other breed before the gentle giants that are the Great Danes.  Fierce and gentle at once, bold and courageous when times demand it, yet able to approach an infant in the softest, most non-threatening manner, exhibiting a kind of cross-species empathy that defies most of the rules of the natural world around us, I can think of no finer testament to a man or a woman upon their departure from this life than the heartfelt mourning of a Great Dane.

We had our first Dane some twenty-five years ago.  We adopted her from a shelter in North Texas, and she was a wonderful dog. Our first papered Dane was a pup, just six weeks old when I brought him home, a fine fellow of black and white.  He was smart, but a bit on the shy side, a gentle young fellow, who grew strong, swift and obedient. I trained him daily, in small sessions measured in minutes at first, teaching him all he could take in with the mind and attention of a wee puppy.  It didn’t take long before his skills were sharp. I could place him in a sit-stay at the end of our block, walk all the way to our home, and re-call him. Dutifully, he would zoom up the sidewalk, his adolescent athleticism covering the ground with ease, and from there, I knew he was something quite special.  He grew and became an average-sized Dane, and as he blossomed into a fully mature dog, I recognized in him agility and talent that I’d never seen in a dog so large.  It wasn’t long before we had purchased a house out in the country, and there was a great deal of work to be done.  Of necessity, I suspended his training because with work and everything ongoing at the house, there simply wasn’t the time.

In those days, there weren’t a large number of Great Danes entered in obedience or agility trials, so it was that one would feel a bit like the odd-man-out. After a little more than a year-long break from our training, we recommenced, and it didn’t take long for my pal Max to earn his Companion Dog title.  He was already a mature dog by the time he earned his CD, and at the show in San Antonio where he completed his CD, he was already showing his age as  he slooooooowly sat, his hips already showing signs of early arthritis.  This is one of the common maladies of the breed, and undoubtedly one of the reasons the breed has such a short average life expectancy of just seven-and-one-half years.

I think of all the things in nature that are awful, this may be among the most cruel: Great Danes are a breed with so many natural virtues, among them being that they will  almost universally grow to be real members of families, beloved and treasured. While it takes them two years (or more) to reach full maturity, the prime of their lives is so very miserably short.  From two years, you can generally count another five, and then it becomes a long, downhill slide, slowly at first, but generally accelerating beyond the age of eight.  My pal Max lived to be nearly nine.  Others have not been so lucky, one poor fellow not quite making five before being claimed by cancer.  Our current pair is already nine-and-one-half years old.  This is generally a geriatric age for these noble creatures, and recently, my fellow Frisco is starting to show the beginnings of arthritic hips, and the degeneration of the spine known as spondylosis deformans(or commonly, shortened to “spondylosis.”) This now is coming to be his biggest problem.

This is one of the ways nature seems almost to punish Great Danes for their virtues of size and athleticism, but it is far from the only way.  One rescue adoptee we had from eighteen months old developed the degeneration in his back by the time he was seven, but try as we might, in the end, it was another common Great Dane malady – bloat – that took him down.  Conan might have survived the surgery, but the recovery was likely to be touch and go, and with his spine and hips giving him so many troubles, at times unable even to stand without exhausting effort or assistance, we decided to let him go.  How much should a good, loyal dog be required to endure,  or be permitted to suffer?

“Owning” Great Danes is one way of looking at the relationship, but it’s hardly the only way to view it.  What you find commonly among Great Dane owners is that they are in a thorough sense owned by their dog, in the same way one is owned by his or her children.  I know this is so with my current older fellow, Frisco, and his kind but epileptic brother Sterling.  They became a big part of our lives, sort of toddlers in a permanent state of arrested mental development, who will always look to you, always forgive your foibles and failings, simply accepting and giving companionship happily.

Frisco has always been my “talker,” who murmurs and groans in expression of his emotional state.  He’s highly vocal.  When he was young, when he found he could make an un-Holy racket with his great bark, it was a thing he began to do, at times we believed simply because he could, and because he seemed to like it.  He would march out the back door and into the yard barking, as if to announce to the world he had arrived.  Like many things with this or other dogs, one way to address unwanted behaviors is to make them on-command behaviors.  Frisco was therefore taught to “speak.”  It didn’t entirely cure his occasional unwanted barking, but it did reduce it somewhat.

One day, goofing around, it was discovered that if one sings to Frisco, he will begin to howl, low and soft at first, but eventually breaking into a full-throated howling that would rival a whole pack of coyotes.  This began the introduction of a new command – “Sing” – to Frisco’s repertoire,  and you can now hear Frisco sing merely by asking.  One day not so many months ago, I was lounging on the sofa, Frisco to my right with his head laid across my lap, and I said to Frisco, for no reason whatever: “Getting old sucks,” as I scratched behind his ear. He flipped his head over, looking at me from an upside-down point of view, and groaned.  I repeated my lament, and much to my surprise, he repeated his groan.  Since then, I’ve repeated my complaint often, and if I preface it by simply addressing it to him directly, as in: “Frisco, getting old sucks,” he will answer with a groan and a low, soft howl to mark his general agreement.

Recently, Frisco had to go to the vet, to have x-rays taken, and some dental attention since he would be anesthetized already for the films.   (Anesthesia for a Great Dane is not an inexpensive service, so best to combine procedures performed while under.) His spondylosis is advancing, and we’ve now commenced a regimen of NSAIDs to help treat his condition, with the hope being that we can restore some of his mobility and quality of life for a little while before anything else needs to be considered.  As I laid on the floor next to him Tuesday night, commiserating with him as two old guys now years past their physical prime, it struck me that the last nine years had virtually flashed by, and indeed all of my own fifty.  It always seems this way when you’re coming to the end of things, and as time flies past, you become more conscious of its rapidity.  In all these years we’ve owned Great Danes, all but the first two years of our marriage, it never dawned on me how much of a fixture they had become in our lives, or how they had come to define who we are and who we’ve been.

Maybe it’s the melancholy of the season, the season of life in which I’m more fully entering my own inevitable decline, but whatever the reason, I’ve grown a good deal more sensitive to all of this with the growing recognition that time is running out for me as it must for us all.  All of life’s little postponements are coming due, and it’s suddenly clear to me, in the dread nature of Frisco’s spondylosis, that I must become more concerned for this day, because the number of possible “laters” are running out.  Man is a creature who must plan beyond the day or the week or the year, simply because his existence will not allow him to live as a dog, with no regard to some distant future.  We must make our best guesses about what that future will look like, and on that basis make our plans in order to prepare for those days should we survive to see them.

Dogs have the great natural blessing of needing only to consider the imminent, taking moments as they come, but never anticipating much beyond their next meal, or their next pat from their human companions.  Sadly, this is also their curse, because when their quality of life diminishes to the extent that all they can anticipate is the next moment of pain or struggle, they have not the means to rationalize the situation, or to make use of their time with distractions from the pain so that they can still live with some purpose other than to suffer.  This is our great blessing, in that man can now persist, and with fruitful purpose, long after his body has begun to fail him.  We can still find happiness and comfort in anticipation of a future we are able to rationalize into some semblance of joy, by some cause all our own, so that physical pain need not imprison us.  This is why it rests with us to look out for our fine canine friends, who had been our best friends through thick and thin, and to know when it is time, however painfully, to bid them peace.

Just as I cannot tell you this day the exact hour of my inevitable passing, neither can I tell you the manner in which I shall pass.  While the former is still true for my pal Frisco, the latter is less so.  The day will come in some months, or years, when it will fall to me to recognize when there is no good remaining in life for him.  On a farm, this is a thing that happens, and if you keep pets, it is a thing you either have or will eventually come to dread.  It is one of the things that torments pet owners, because one doesn’t wish to make waste of the good days that may remain, but neither does one wish to extend by even one minute the unmitigated pain or suffering that will be endured by one’s cherished animal friends.

This is the only thing about Great Danes that recommends against the breed, for truth be told, by the time they have become thoroughly woven into your life, your love, becoming even part of your identity, the hooks are set deeply, yet already, the countdown has begun.  I’ve owned other dogs, notably a number of friendly mongrels who enriched our lives and our home, and good as they may have been, I’ve noticed that the Danes just want the human companionship more.  They act as though they’d just as soon be one of us, and it may just be that in some ways, a bit like permanent toddlers, they become us.  Whatever it is particularly, (and I am sure there are advocates of other breeds who will feel the same,) there is something strikingly superhuman in the Great Dane’s apparent capacity for compassion and empathy.  This is undoubtedly the cause for their superior performance as Therapy Dogs, and the reason stories like that of Bella and George receive so much attention.

Still, knowing the difficulties of the breed, we have again brought into our home a new Great Dane pup.  “Maggie,” as she will be hereafter known, is being brought along now, in part because we love the dogs and need them in our lives, and also because before too much longer, one or the other of the two aging brothers will make that sad final journey, leaving his sibling otherwise canine-deprived.  We’ve been through that before, and what we’ve observed is that having one’s canine pack removed can be a depressing, debilitating circumstance for the survivor, and with an older dog, it can spell the end.   The truth is probably that Maggie should have come along sooner, since now as she grows into a young, mature dog, the two brothers will be in a much more frail, fragile condition.  We’ll have to watch to make sure her rambunctiousness in youth does not cause harm to her elders.  Truthfully, I think it best to always have at least two, staggered in age by three to four years, since the elder will still be young enough and vigorous enough to contend with the youthful dog, while the younger dog will gain from learning the house rules and protocols in part by imitation of and compliance with the elder.  All of this does not eliminate the blow that is the loss of a pack-mate, but it does soften it a little.

Years and years ago, when we lost poor young Brutus to cancer, my pal Max was already in old age.  Max had been ever the Alpha dog, and with the loss of Brutus, his “Mini-Me,” (who was not at all “mini,”) Max almost entirely lost the will to live.  I am sure his hips and spine had been bothering him for some time, but mostly, as the Alpha, he would “tough it out” in order to avoid showing weakness to his side-kick.  Once Brutus passed, poor Max had no reason to stiffen his upper lip, and in a matter of weeks, he was in complete free-fall.  In the span of less than six months, he came to care not for this world, and among many tears, we bade him farewell.  One might suspect that there could be another cause, and it is true to say that the degradation of old age was hard upon him, but until Brutus died, Max soldiered on.  Absent Brutus, he wasn’t the Alpha, and since every Alpha needs to lead a pack, he was left purposeless.

As if to punctuate my point, and to answer the looming question, a fascinating circumstance arose in our living room.  Frisco, who’s still sore from the extension of his legs for accurate X-rays of his hip joints and spine, had taken up position on one of our two sofas. The pup had picked up a squeaky-toy, made to look like a lamb (with thick eyelashes, no less) and was squeezing it, causing it to squeak endlessly.  She brought it over to me, and away I tossed it. Off she charged, and when she picked it up, I urged her to return it to me, telling her to “bring it, Maggie, bring it.” Having played this game a bit on Monday, she knew to return it so I could toss it again. Toward me with a mouthful of squeaky-lamb she charged, releasing it gently into my grasp.  Away I threw it again, and off she streaked, again returning it as I urged her on.  Frisco had been watching this from the other sofa, watching the toy streak past, then Maggie flying by in both directions, but on the next throw, before Maggie could close on the toy, quicker than Frisco has moved in some time, off the couch he leaped and onto the toy. He picked it up and charged over to me, remembering perhaps the feeling of fun we had known together when he was just a pup.  I took the toy from him, patting him a long while, his tail wagging happily as it had so many years before.

On this day, it was as if Frisco wanted to reassure me that he was far from done, though I knew we had reached the beginning of the long goodbye.  Thankfully, it’s not time yet, not nearly, so we will hang onto Frisco and his brother for so long as we are able, and so long as they are willing, taking the gift that is each day with our canine friends as they come, one at a time.

Update: Today, more than eighteen months after I hammered out this post, Frisco was relieved of his watch over our home. His brother Sterling soldiers on, with Maggie to keep him company.  Though I’ve known for the last year-and-one-half that this day had been coming, we did our best to extend our time with Frisco, supporting him in his diminishing physical capacity, while his spirit and the quality of his companionship never faltered, not even at the end.  I will miss Frisco more than I can relate.  He’d just made his eleventh birthday, but returning from a business trip just a week ago, I recognized that even in my brief absence, his condition had worsened.  It was time, and as I held his big head while the kind veterinarian who comes to our farm administered that final dose, I remembered the day we drove home with Frisco and Sterling, just ten weeks old, who laid on the back seat of our car, snuggling together on a blanket, comforting one another, but quiet through the long drive.  I’m so glad we brought them into our lives, but all in all, I may probably never see Frisco’s like again.




Fathers’ Day Forever Changed

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

For the past quarter century, waking up on the third Sunday in June has been a reminder of my status as a father.  From the moment my daughter was born, I knew she would change my life in every conceivable way. Along the way, these twenty-five Fathers’ Days, there have been moments of joy and celebration, times of consternation, and occasional periods of relative calm, but for the first time in quite a while, my darling daughter has succeeded in taking my breath away. Fishing outings, horseback riding, Halloween in a little tiger suit at three-years-old, and any number of other occasions are some of the decorations in my mind on Fathers’ Day.  This year, I think we’ve attained a new pinnacle.

Friday, in the hottest part of the Texas afternoon, she delivered a beautiful baby girl, my granddaughter.  Now residing on the timeless rolls of grandfathers, with the prospects good that the day will climax with a discharge from the hospital for glowing mother and radiant child. Having shared the news with my own father, our family’s living members now span four generations again for the first time in a decade.  One thing that has changed for me, probably for all times, is the realization that some part of me will go on, long after I’m gone, and that at least one more chance exists for me to help shape the future.  Children are and have ever been the real stars of Fathers’ Day, and it is on Fathers’ Day that we who are blessed with children, now grown and building families of their own, hope longingly for their frequent return.

Happy Fathers’ Day to all, and Grandfathers too. And congratulations to new fathers, especially!

Editor’s Note: It’s been a rough Spring here, with a heavy workload and unrelenting problems of varying sorts, but today, I might just take part of the day off after all.  Mother, daughter, and father are tired but doing well. 


Fatherhood in America 2013

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

Greatest Job on the Planet

I’ve been a father for nearly a quarter century. That’s just more than half of my life, to date. I’ve laughed and cried and have had the occasion to be very proud of my daughter while watching her grow and learn to make her own way in the world.  I know that in this era, many children haven’t the benefit of a father in their homes, and while there exists a myriad of reasons why this is so, I can’t help but feel badly for them knowing what it is of which life has conspired to deprive them.  Moms always get the credit, and well they should, for after all, they carry us those months in increasing discomfort, before delivering us to a waiting world.  It’s always Mom who gets the wave on TV after the winning touchdown, and while it’s perfectly normal and reasonable, I suppose that being a Dad makes me a bit biased toward the unheralded exertions of “dear old Dad,” not because I think I’ve been a particularly good or able father, but because whatever the vices or virtues I exhibit[ed] as a father, what I cannot claim is to have been without superior example. As the eldest son of an eldest son, I had the good fortune to see what fatherhood is all about, and to learn why its increasing absence in the lives of children is creating such a misery for a nation.  If there are too few good men, it may owe to the fact that there are too few good fathers.  To my good fortune, I could never claim that excuse.

I am one of six children, all boys except for the baby of the group, a sister who was just a toddler when I left home for good.  It’s difficult to overstate how difficult a job it must have been to deal with the lot of us.  Spread out in age over the span of fifteen years, it was a constant three-ring circus.  Trouble at school, or in the neighborhood was never far away, as one of us(and usually more than one) was always into something.  We weren’t hellions by modern standards, but mischief was not uncommon.  Dad’s influence was always there, because while Mom tried to keep a lid on us during the day, Dad leaving for work before we had boarded the bus for school,  and Dad would arrive home well behind us, many times, it was the knowledge that Dad would soon arrive that prevented us from boiling over.  Sometimes, we did anyway.

Growing up, I had the occasion to work with my father on many projects, around the house, in the yard, or in the garage.  My younger siblings didn’t always gain the full benefit of this because they were too small, but I certainly did.  Their respective turns would come later.  What I gained from all of this was confidence: I learned that with a little patience and some practice along with basic hand-tools, there was virtually nothing I could not build, refurbish or repair.  This led directly to the sort of work I did in the military, and indeed ever since.  The amount of money this experience saved me when I was a young father with a young family struggling close to the margins of poverty cannot be understated.  If I had to go back in time and pay somebody else for all the things I did on my own because my father showed me I had been able, it would be a mid-six-figure bill at least.  Added to this is the money I have been able to earn precisely because I had been given the confidence to learn new things, applying that knowledge to earning a living, and what I’ve realized is that my father wasn’t simply raising a young man nearly so much as he had given his children the tools necessary to find a way to succeed in life.

Another thing Dad taught me was that you simply must “show up.”  You can’t win at a game you refuse to play, and you can’t push your fortunes forward by waiting for them to come to you.  I’m not a wealthy man as measured in dollars, but I would be a much poorer man both in dollars and sense if Dad hadn’t given me the example of what it means to stand in and take life’s punches.  I watched him nearly work himself to an early grave because the need for income of a growing family had driven him to working three jobs.  I don’t know when he slept.  Long, unforgiving hours, little or no time at home, and endless fatigue made all of it a true torture chamber.  Did he grumble?  No.  Did he complain?  Not in front of we kids.  The toll it took on him was nearly lethal, but he didn’t quit, he didn’t fold, and he didn’t relent.

In this day and age of easy money and quick answers, Dad simply soldiered-on. Even now, galloping toward his seventy-sixth birthday, he’s still working, and not in a desk job, but instead on a loading/unloading dock at a busy retailer’s distribution center.  I’m not sure I could do his job, except that what Dad taught me still lives in me: There’s nothing I can’t do if I’m willing to put my mind to it.  As he’s aged, time has taken its toll as it must for each of us, but  even so, he’s still standing in and taking life’s punches, demonstrating why it is that examples such as he are so critical to their children.  Where else would I have learned it?  It’s not as though my mother is without a strong work ethic, as a daughter of immigrants who grew up in poverty, but that as boys and young men, our expectations as to what men were supposed to be was gathered by watching Dad.

Dad also taught us there was nothing wrong with men having strong feelings. Some things should engender visible passion in men, and the love of their family is chief among them. Love of one’s country is another. When I was a boy, I didn’t understand why Dad would get misty-eyed as the national anthem played before a ball-game, but having served my young adulthood in the military as he did before me, I now understand, because it happens to me too.  Being a Dad means being responsible for a good many obvious things, but a great number of intangible ones too.  People with whom I work and who know the hours and efforts I put into the job ask me how it is that I can take it. He could take it, so  I know I can too because I know I’ve had it relatively easy compared with better men.  I have a sense of responsibility for everything I touch, and a sense of urgency for the consequences of not having done all I could. That comes from Dad.

I appreciate such talents as those with which I was born, or those to which I was trained by a better man.  No father is “perfect” inasmuch as we are all fallible, each of us with our own particular foibles.  Still, it is hard to imagine raising six children, five of them hard-headed boys, to become anything approximating decent, honorable men without the direct and unrelenting influence of one in their lives.  Left to our own devices, and without the sometimes stern hand of a father redirecting a wayward son, it’s impossible to guess how much trouble we might each have been. Many days, I am certain we were plenty of hardship, but without Dad, the imagination is punished by thinking about how badly things just might have become.

It is the fashion in this age to trivialize the importance of men in the lives of their children, but looking back as I am prone to do as my days before me dwindle, I know that’s all a lie, particularly for sons.  Men learn to be men by watching men, for better or worse, and they learn how to relate to women for good or for ill, and they mostly follow the examples they’ve learned from their own fathers, not as carbon copies, but as re-writes and edited or abbreviated versions.  To this very day, I still believe my father is the smartest man I’ve ever known, and one of the most under-appreciated talents ever to grace this Earth, but in modesty, he would never acknowledge such a thing, or even consider it, because he had always believed in large measure that men are as good as their word, what they do, and what they manage to  accomplish.

That’s a high standard, for all the limitless reasons you all know, and it’s a good deal more exacting a measure than the subject has earned.  Still, when I look at my Dad with his failing health and dwindling years, I know that if when my days are done, I’ll have been half the man he had been, I will have lived a great life with blessings and fortunes that I, like he, will have never felt that I had deserved. It is with this and abundance of love that I have but a simple wish for the day:

Happy Fathers’ Day, Dad!




Personal Note

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Friends, readers, subscribers, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for visiting.  It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and I’ve not updated the site because I’ve been at a loss for words.  As usual, my professional life is hectic, and the farm demands a good deal of my remaining attention in this part of the year, so with some problems that have arisen, I’ve been thoroughly preoccupied.  I had the occasion to take a few days off after an out-of-town conference, and I started that time off feeling pretty poorly.  The time off gave me a little time to reflect on a number of issues confronting me personally, and to begin the task of deciding what is next. It also gave me a few days to consider my perspective on a number of the issues confronting the country, and how we conservatives can help to put things right.  There’s no mistaking the fact that a good deal of the country’s troubles are cultural, inasmuch as it is quickly moving from one of work and achievement to one of sloth and indifference.  It’s becoming quite a crisis, but I think it’s worth noting that there are bright spots.  A few days off in a distant city, relaxing and thinking through my issues and our national troubles has done my frame of mind some good.

I mostly wanted to thank all of those who have written me during this extended absence to inquire as to my condition and state.  I thank you for your concern, and I apologize for not reading through my email daily.  Simply put, I have been exhausted, dealing with some health issues so that I needed to simply step away from it all for a little while.  When one finds one is under the gun, it’s often best to start paring back in the areas one can live without.  I think we all need that from time to time.  My hectic professional schedule has now resumed, and the punishment for a few days off has already overfilled my inbox, and while some things arose which would not wait, I’ve managed to get my mind in something akin to the correct frame of mind for what lies ahead.  There may be a day in the not-so-distant future when this site goes away entirely, but it’s not today.  Thank you for your extended and generous patience, and thank you for the notes of concern.  When I’ve had the time and energy to read them, they’ve been quite a bit of help to my frame of mind.  I can’t promise I will be resuming the full schedule of blogging you once came to know here, but I’m not going away just yet either.  I may even write some non-political or mildly political things. One never knows…

To all my readers, Thank You!