jimowenswrites

Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Lessons from an Old Dog

When I throw the ball, he glances at it through cataract graying eyes, then stares up at me as if to say, Dummy. I’m good right here. You go get it.

He has trouble sitting down and standing up, but he’s moving better since the veterinarian prescribed some anti-inflammatory meds for his bad back and hip.

His hind quarters and hips are dotted with golf ball-sized lipomas (fatty benign tumors) that look painful but aren’t.   Still, I wince a little when I see them from certain angles.

When Bear gets excited—like when we go to the spa (the kennel where I board him from time to time) he has a tendency to forget the lobby is not the place for him to—how do I say this?— poop.  So yeah, I sometimes get stared at by the other pet owners there with their bright-eyed, well-mannered pups.  The place is nicer than a lot of hotels I stay in, so it’s awkward when this happens.  At least for me.

This morning when I went to his room—yes, you read that right, he has his own room that used to be my office—he didn’t move at first and I’ll admit I was afraid he’d died sometime in the night.  To my relief, he struggled to his feet and dutifully headed to the back door.  He knows when it’s time for breakfast.

Bear is thirteen-year-old yellow lab with a white face, a finicky, almost anorexic appetite, who let’s me have the privilege of caring for him.  In return, I get a limited amount of tail wagging, and his determination to trip me as he follows my every step around the yard and house.  Bear gives what he has to give, but truth is that isn’t much.

It didn’t cost me anything to adopt Bear.  I took him in when a friend posted a picture on Facebook and I learned he had been left pretty much alone since his owner had gone into a nursing home.  But since then, he’s cost me a lot of money.  Vet bills.  A new fence.  And, of course, a new vacuum cleaner that will suck the carpet off the floor—but somehow seems to leave more dog hair littering my hardwood floors than it should.  I’ve stopped counting how much I’ve spent because I’ve learned something really valuable in caring for Bear.

I’ve learned that caring for someone or something who really can’t give you anything in return is of immeasurable value.  Most of us willingly care for our kids, our spouses, and even our parents and other families if we need to.  Generally, we get something in return for that care.  It may only be the satisfaction of seeing our children do well, our spouses find happiness, or our parents living their final days in the warmth of our love. But we do get something in return.

As I write, I find Bear has given me something more than I could have expected from an old dog.  He’s helped me recognize the day may well come when I may need to be cared for and be unable to offer much in return.  Maybe, if I’m fortunate, I can offer a warm smile of gratitude, or speak the words that accompany it.  Maybe I will even be able to offer someone comfort, encouragement, and make them laugh.  But maybe I won’t.

In a few weeks, I will have the opportunity to emcee an event for an organization that offers help to the aged and homebound who can’t really give much in return for their help.  CASA, as it’s known, has been offering help in my community since 1979.  They build ramps, install grab bars in showers, deliver food, and a variety of other things for people who can’t do the things for themselves they once could.  The staff at CASA doesn’t do it for the money.  They don’t do it for praise or glory.  They do it because it needs to be done.  When I host the event, I will be asking the audience to offer their financial support to this organization so it can continue to do its work.  Somehow, Bear has made me want to do an even better job than I’d already hoped to do.

When I was sitting on the porch with Bear this evening it struck me that my relationship with him has somehow inspired me.  Maybe all this seems a bit strange—a dog inspiring me with more compassion for a human services organization.  But Bear keeps teaching me things I hadn’t expected to learn from him.  He’s helped me see my own frailty.  He’s helped me become more patient.  And he’s imbued me with an even greater sense of compassion for people in need.

Damn.  That’s some dog.

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An Excerpt from The Darian Matter:

Author’s note:  While Cabal, my  forthcoming conspiracy thriller, rests with the editor, I’m continuing work of The Darian Matter.  This work of science fiction addresses existential issues, with attention to the nature of friendship, loyalty, duty, time and the possibility of multiple universes–all while earth’s future and the fate of mankind hangs in the balance.

 

Time

In the darkness, time passed unnoticed.  But the inexoreable forces of pressure, moisture, and chemistry went on nonetheless.  And the irrepressible desire for survival, to carry on, to thrive even, had cooperated with those forces, along with neurobiology and physics within their world.

Not all of them had escaped the calaminty of the crushing pressures, of course.  Most of them had perished when the original onslaught occurred.  Some survived only to die within the first decades after the cataclysm.  But a precious few were still there.  Changed, yes.  But deep below the planet’s surface, they were alive.

One of them shuddered.  Then another.  And another. At first, only tiny bits of the debris in which they were entombed moved. Their bodies vibrated steadily, not violently, at frequencies that softened the compacted soil around them.  But slowly, as they joined together in a sort of mass vibration, stone and soil began giving way until far above them the surface bubbled in a cauldron of dust. Almost imperceptibly, their bodies began to ascend towards the surface, a volcanic flow of life rising towards the atmosphere.

It had taken weeks before the first of them emerged.  A few days later, others began to appear.  Within a week, perhaps a hundred of them stood motionless on the barren surface of the planet.  A few more weeks and the first one shook himself like a wet dog.  Bits of the remaining debris that covered its body scattered from it like water.    Then, one by one, the creatures extended their wings, warming themselves under the glow of the planet’s two suns.

A Few Random Selections from The Darian Matter

Author’s Note:  What if we really were visited by an ancient civilization of aliens? What if they are still here? And what if some of them aren’t benevolent?  The Darian Matter explores the meaning of duty, friendship, service, and sacrifice.  What happens when fiction meets science, philosophy, theology and asks big questions–and earth’s existence hangs in the balance?

 

The Artisans

Shivan the Stonecutter was pleased.  His students had learned well.  And while they did not yet understand the geometry of his design or the complex mathematics that were required for such works, they followed instructions well.

The Masons had shown the people how lay the stones he and his apprentices had hewn with the kind of precision that would insure their works would last for generations.  And even though the geoglyphs and great architectural works had been constructed, as had many others across the planet, in reverence to him and his people, he had never really gotten used to it: being considered a god.

He had remained there with the others long enough to insure the work would be completed, leaving their mark on the planet—placing reminders around the galaxy as to what magnificent works they were capable of erecting.  Teotihuacán. Giza.  Stonhenge. The Caves at Ajanta.  They had left their work across the planets and galaxies for everyone to see—to remind them of what their own people might have borne witness to if they had not chosen to banish Shivan, his companion stonecutters and the other artisans.

It was almost time for them to leave this place.  Many of the others had already left.  Shivan wondered where Marsineus would send them next and where others of his kind were already at work.  But he was eager to return to his people.  Their nomadic travels had taken their toll on him and his brothers and sisters.  And they, like he, were growing increasingly impatient with one another.

Minor conflicts that began only as cross words spoken in fatigue were now ending in blows.  From time to time the violence spilled over onto the civilizations they were erecting their architectural wonders within and his people had beenkilling even those who worshipped them as gods.  Where once they had simply been architects, tradesmen, and builders, they now seemed to take as much pleasure in creating chaos as they once had in creating order.

Worse, he felt himself becoming—what was it?  Duller? Less precise in his work?   The complex equations required of him, the precision of his work, that once gave him joy had become increasingly difficult and far less pleasing.  Shivan had tried to convince himself it was only fatigue and the longing for home.  But part of him knew it was something deeper.  It felt like—he didn’t want to say it—not even to himself.

Madness.

 

The Child

“Come with me, child,” he said.

She took his hand, feeling its warmth, its strength and, of course, its tenderness.

“Please, sit down if you like.”

“I would prefer to stand, if that is okay.”

He nodded.

“Close your eyes.”

Eager to please him as always ways, and full of a boundless trust, she did as she was instructed.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing,” she laughed, opening her eyes.  “How can I see anyting with my eyes closed?”

Without admonishment, he told her to close them once more.

“Look again.  Gently.”

This was silly, she thought.  Maybe it was a game.  But his games always had lessons so she pressed her almost almond shaped eyes shut.  The child in her fought the urge to peek.

“Just look.  Without effort.  Now tell me what you see?”

“I see—darkness.  Black.”

“Wait,” he urged.

She waited, but was growing increasingly impatient.  Sometimes she just wished he would tell her whatever it was he wanted to teach her and be done with it.  But that had never been his way.  He had told her the best lessons are those learned by experience, rather than taught by others.

“Quiet your mind,” he said softly.

She let go of her thoughts as he had taught her, imagining them as ephemeral whisps of smoke disappearing in a cool breeze.  She noticed the beating of her heart, each of it’s six chambers working in rhthymn.  Fomm.  Fomm.  Fomm. She could almost hear the sound of blood corsing through her veins.  Then she let that go too.  She felt herself breathing, felt the warm damp puffs of breath leaving her body.  Then she released that too. Standing there, she felt his presence before he and then she felt it dissolve.

It was happening.  Everything resolving itself into a unified whole—a place where she was separate—unique—yet everything was one.  Harmony without concensus within her and around her.  Except for that one place deep within her.

That one thing.  That place.  It was still there.

“Did you see it?”

“I did.”

“What did you see?”

The child hesitated, trying to find the right words to express the inexpressible, to explain the inexpicable.  He saw her struggling.  He saw her unspoken petition for help in sorting it, but offered none.

“I’m not sure how to explain it.”

“Then don’t try.  Just let it be there,” he said.

For some reason, she found comfort in his counsel.  Not so much for what he had said—well, that too—but because he had told her just to let it be there.  He had done so because he had seen it too.

“Just let it be there,” he said once more.  “For now.”

This is no easy thing

This is no easy thing,

still loving you,

trying to heal this foolish broken heart,

trying to wipe of the stains of my tears for what could have been,

for what should have been;

 

This is no easy thing, sitting here,

wondering about what’s left,

what’s left undone,

wondering if there is anything that will rid me of this soul ache,

this hollow despair deep that permeates my body and pierces my belly,

hoping there is some way to deceive my heart into believing that everything

will be right once again—someday;

wondering if there is truly a time for all things under the sun will be such a time for us,

and if there is when it might come

hoping there will come a time

that wonderful, glorious day,

that day when my foolish mind no longer enslaves my heart;

 

This is no easy thing, sitting here, waiting,

hoping that I will hear the soft reminder of your love in the bell’s tinkling,

but fearing you now belong to another, someone more worthy,

someone who will erase me from your memories,

someone who captured you because I could not see,

because I was afraid,

and when I lay down and wonder about the things I said,

or didn’t say,

because I was afraid,

because I feared loss, more than I understood gain,

because I feared the uncertainty within myself and feared for you in that uncertainty;

 

This is no easy thing, sitting here,

not knowing,

waiting,

hoping,

pleading with the fate and the gods that rule it,

this is no easy thing, sitting here.

Life Lessons and Lab Work

We have a lot in common. He likes to nap, has a bad back and a bad hip.  But he’s got a good attitude.   He’s somewhere around eighty-six years old—no one is really sure.  When he came to live with me, I really didn’t know what to expect.  I wasn’t really even sure he wanted to come live with me.  Or that I could handle the responsibility of caring for him.  But last week I helped into the back of my 4Runner and kept reassuring him along the drive back to my house.

Don’t be afraid. 

It will be okay. 

We’re almost there. 

His name is Bear.  He’s a twelve-year-old (or so) Yellow Labrador Retriever.  Bear’s owner, an aging woman in poor health, just went into a nursing home.  And according to her neighbors, she’s not coming home again.  Her journey on this earth has come is coming to an end after raising Bear from a pup.  Which is both a comfort and a bit sad to me.

When I met Bear, I knew he had to come home with me.  It wasn’t a rational decision.  But it wasn’t really a heart decision either.  I didn’t think about it.  I wasn’t really looking to get a dog.  At least not seriously.  But when I saw Bear I just told the woman trying to find him a new home, I’ll take him.  When I opened the back door of my SUV he just looked at me.  Bear doesn’t jump anymore, you see.

Picking up a ninety-pound older dog is like trying to lift a trash bag full of water.  You grab one end and all the water goes rushing to the other end.  When I grabbed him in the middle the water rushed to both ends.  He grunted.  I grunted.  At that point, we agreed the woman’s husband should help.  So each of us grabbed an end and in he went.

He’s been at my house for about a week now.  He doesn’t require very much.  Simple food.  Clean water (tap, not even bottled).  An occasional walk.  And oh yeah, he needs to be with me.  All the time.  If I get up, Bear gets up.  If I sit down, Bear sits down.  If I’m cooking, Bear is cooking.  He just needs to be in my presence. If I close a door behind me, leaving him in an another room, he sits down and patiently waits for me to pop out again. This old guy is teaching me a lot.

He’s teaching me about simplicity.  He only eats when he’s hungry.  He only drinks water when he’s thirsty.  He doesn’t need to be entertained.  He won’t sleep on his bed, preferring the hardwood or tile to something soft.  But he’s not an ascetic.  He likes the occasional treat.  And he clearly enjoys being scratched behind the ears.  (Don’t we all?)  But he seems to take pleasure in simple things and doesn’t hold the the notion that more of a good thing makes it better.

I’m also learning something from Bear about the value of presence.  All he requires of me is to be there, or should I say, to let him be there.  That isn’t a lot—and yet it’s just about everything.  Presence.  Being near.  Ask a loving parent who’s estranged from a child—they’d give just about anything to have their child long to be near them.  Ask a dying man or woman what they want in their final moments.  It isn’t their awards or to review all of their achievements.  It isn’t their stuff.  It’s the presence of the ones they love and that love them in return.  Ask a child who’s lost in the aisles of the grocery store.  All she wants is to be near her father or mother.  There’s a lot to be said for presence, for being near.

Bear is also teaching me more about giving without expecting anything in return.  Like I said, Bear doesn’t really play.  He doesn’t do tricks.  He wags his tail from time to time—mostly when he’s come back inside after a walk around the yard on a cold day.  Bear doesn’t wrestle with a rope or towel.  If dogs can be grateful, I think Bear is.  But that doesn’t really matter, I’m learning that more and more.

I’m not sure how long Bear and I will be together.  According to the oracles at my favorite search engine, he’s already reached the end of the average life expectancy for Labs.  Hopefully, he will spend a few more years teaching me things and living a life of comfort.  But whether he lives only a few more months or a few more years, I’m grateful for the things I’m learning from him.

Maybe you could learn something from Bear too.  Things like:

Be present.  Stay near the ones you love. 

Keep it simple.  More of a good thing doesn’t make it better. 

Give without expecting anything in return.

I think those are pretty good lessons.  But there’s one more thing Bear is teaching me.  It’s the value of a good nap.  I think I’ve got that one down already.  But I’m still going to keep at it.  I guess it’s kind of like, well, Lab Work.

An Excerpt from The Darian Matter–Science Fiction

From the Histories of the Preceptors

 

Theophanus sat before the children, tapping his ossified knuckles on the lectern.  One by one, the children quieted themselves hearing the familiar rapping of him calling for their attention.  Dutifully, each child sat before him, arranging themselves in four columns of three, precisely spaced one arm’s length apart.

 

“Who can recite the Principles for me?” asked the Preceptor.  Gazing across the faces his young protégés, he watched most of his students avert their eyes.  Yet when his met the impenetrably dark gaze of his smallest pupil, he knew she was prepared.   With the slightest nod of his head, he invited her to begin.

 

“These are the Principles,” she said in a voice larger than it should have been.  “Duty, above all.  The sentient you shall not harm.  Influence without revelation.  Only a worthy adversary shall you destroy.  Seek the self—if it may be found. Unto a friend, offer thy life.  Truth is the wellspring; drink deeply of her waters.”

 

“And the Eighth, Calandra?” Theophanus asked.

 

Die well,” she said.

 

When they had completed their time with Theophanus, each of the children departed to the labs.  Without instruction, Calandra walked to the platform and stepped up nimbly.  Sensors recorded her height and weight, the distance between her knees and ankles, her hips and knees, as well as her the length of her neck, and arms, along with the width of her chest and hips.  Her growth since her last visit to the lab was notable.  The soft chirp of the machine told her the machine had completed its examination.  She stepped off gently.

 

The Preceptor pointed to the examination station.  She adjusted herself within the chair, letting herself get as comfortable as she could be.  Sharp flashes of light measuring her neural reaction time began flashing on the screen before her in a dancing symphony of hues and color.  The preceptor tapped a note into the machine.

 

Exceptional.

 

Before the series of mathematical problems began to flash across the screen, Calandra focused her attention deliberately.  She slowed her heart rate with several deep breaths. Relaxing the muscles in her face and neck, she then slowed her respiration.

 

“Begin.”

 

As the quantum physics and linear algebra equations began, she provided the proofs almost effortlessly, completing the series long before she should have.  Again, the Preceptor made a note.

 

Continues to excel both in speed and accuracy. 

 

Her final test was often the most daunting for Alaphin children.  Over time, their preceptors had divined the deepest fears of their subjects.  Some feared death.  Others solitude or humiliation.  Calandra feared abandonment along with the loss of the esteem—and the Preceptors had finally determined it.

 

Still sitting in the examination chair, images were flashed onto the screen of her mind.

 

A lost child.

 

Her pulse quickened slightly, but she quickly returned it to rest.

 

An image of her ailing mother. 

 

Again, her pulse quickened, but returned to normal almost instantly.

 

Gaiman’s rebuke. 

 

Her heart raced wildly.

 

Her own image standing before him.

 

She struggled to remain seated, her feet shifting against the ground.   Her face knotted with anxiety, somehow, she endured it.  When the final image disappeared, she was a drowning child breaking the water’s surface a third time.  She sucked in a deep gasping breath, treading water the waters of her soul.

 

“You have done well, Calandra,” said the Preceptor.  “But you must examine this fear.  Learn to accept it and see things as they are.  With time and effort, you will prevail.”

 

Although Calandra’s performance on these examinations was unique, the process was the same for all Alaphin children.  Long before her birth, the Magisterium had established protocols for taking one’s station in Alaphin society.  Children submitted themselves to genetic testing, brain imaging, and their capacity to recover from mental and physical exertion.   They were tested for their ability to resist fleeing in times of danger, the capacity for patience, empathy, as well as the arts, mathematics and manual dexterity.

 

As Calandra departed the lab, the preceptor made a final cryptic entry into his records.

 

Is this the foretold one?

In Between Man

The in-between man

Is checking his path

My compass in hand

I’m doing the math;

 

Sunshine and shadow,

The wind on my face,

I’ve wandered about

This evergreen space;

 

Canyon rims they’re rising,

Against blue and orange skies,

A traveler’s journey

My days passing by;

 

Still chasing horizons

That seem far away

But staking my tent,

This night will I stay;

 

Lights from the past,

Illuminating the night

They strengthen my heart

Filling me with delight;

 

I’ll wake in the morn

With birds on the wing,

They’ve so little care

‘Cept songs that they’ll sing;

 

Then stuffing my pack

Once again on the trail

I’ll wander until

My skin grows pale;

 

The start of my journey

Falling farther behind

The day it will end

Coming ever more nigh;

 

There’s nothing to fear

And nothing for to fret

There’s no need for sorrow,

No need to regret;

 

My path is unseen,

But its all part of The Plan

These unexpected joys

Of an in-between-man

Words Matter: You know what I mean?

I learned a new word today.  Thanks to the lookup feature on my electronic gadgets, I’m able to sate my relatively harmless addiction to language.  Most of the time when I come across a word I don’t know, I’ll use it to get a fix.

You see, I think words matter.  And I think we shouldn’t be careless with them.

It seems to me people toss about words like crisis, epidemic, and catastrophe these days with such wanton disregard that those words, and quite a few others, have lost much of their value as tools for communication. And like dull knives, we apply force using them rather than care to get them to do their job—communicating meaning.

I’m not sure our use of such force is the cause or consequence of living in a time when we seem so divided as a nation and world.  Many of us, I think, live in a perpetual feedback loop, hearing and reading solely from people who believe what we believe.  Which seems to lead us to a kind of you know what I mean approach to language.  If you’re only exposed to those that belong to your tribe—people of the same political ilk, the same faith, the same race, or life experience—there’s little need for nuance or, even worse, genuine thought.

As I contemplated writing this piece I found myself wanting to call us to our higher, better selves.  And I saw the conundrum in that.  The words higher and better have a very specific meaning to all of us.  Meaning they could call each of us to live according to the tenants of a particular faith, philosophy, political doctrine, or credo.   My point here isn’t to support or oppose any one of them.  Rather, it’s to point out we cannot afford to be careless with our language if we are to create understanding—and maybe to challenge us not to just preach to our own choirs or worship at the alter of our own prophets so fearlessly.

I suppose I should tell you the word I learned today was (and still is) invidious.  I came across it in an article wherein the courts have determined some political gerrymandering has taken place.  The court said that the manipulation of voting districts by those in power was distinctly invidious—meaning it was likely to arouse or incur resentment or anger in others.  It also means it was unjust and unfair.  JusticeFairness. Those are really important words. We’ve gotten their meanings wrong many times throughout the course of our nation’s history.  And fortunately, we’ve made major course corrections, albeit far too slowly in many cases.  But I digress.  Back to words.

The truth is, we don’t have to agree on the meaning of justice and fairness in every situation imaginable.  Perhaps, even probably, we never will.  But we have to try.  We cannot afford to be lazy.  We cannot allow ourselves to be trapped into you know what I mean styles of communication that often simply devolves into rhetoric.  The distinctions between what we say and what we mean are vitally important in our relationships, our work, and the course of our nation and world’s future.

So as I close, I find myself wondering if the words I’ve chosen over the five hundred and thirty that have preceded these, were just the right ones, in just the right order to make you think about a few things.  I’m not sure I’ve succeeded.  But you know what I mean.  Right?

After Christmas

The evergreen lingers,

Sweet spices too,

The floors have been swept,

There’s little to do;

I sit in my chair

Earl Grey in my cup,

And spot the last remnant,

The steam rises up;

There under the couch

Some silver and red,

I smile and I laugh,

While shaking my head;

The presents all shared,

Gratitude all around,

I remember the chaos,

This heavenly sound;

Songs of the season,

Some furious joy,

The children now playing,

A girl and a boy;

Sugar she sits,

At peace in my lap,

She’s finally appeared,

Wanting her nap;

The boarders all gone,

But never too far,

They’ve all headed home,

In over-full cars;

My thoughts a bit scattered,

Another twelve come and passed,

How many will come?

They go by too fast;

Remembering the ones,

That held me so dear,

I long that once more,

Their voices I’d hear;

These memories of Christmas,

I quietly sift,

It seems to me truly,

They’re really the gift;

Her Laugh

sometimes

it’s a startling thing,

like fireworks

exploding before me on a quiet fall morning;

sometimes

it’s a quiet, muted thing,

choked back by the child

who once sat beside

me on the garnet cushioned pews—

the ones with the cold and impossibly hard backs;

sometimes

it starts deep within her,

and rises like the swelling emerald sea

driving a wave

high into the sky,

then higher,

and higher,

then,

roaring with delight,

it crashes onto itself,

with all it’s joyous fury washing ashore;

sometimes

it flashes like lightening,

a spectacular display of light,

pouring over the landscape of my heart,

igniting my soul with magic,

reassuring me that all is well and

that there is nothing so large I should fear;

there’s something about a daughter’s laugh.