Love at First Sniff: Introduction to a Special Character

“I met a dog today.”

Those were the words I used to describe our first encounter with Big Dog in 2006.

My husband and I had gone to the pet store after lunch at our favorite restaurant to get treats for our ailing female Dalamatian. We’d passed the Saturday adoption dogs with a brief glance at two female Chinese Shar Pei mixes in their crates. We couldn’t consider adding a dog since our old girl had become isolating and aggressive (Brain tumor? the vet surmised).

As we waited in the checkout line, a chunky, brown mutt, loose, paddle paws slapping the cold tile, dragged a smiling but out-of-breath brunette across the store and straight toward us. When he reached us, the dog enthusiastically sniffed us with his significant nose—mm, chicken tikka masala—seemed to look into us with his giant, knowing eyes and worried brow, then splayed out on the floor and set about investigating the shelf next to us.

Chunky, brown mutt’s handler said, “He likes you. He’s usually kind of shy.”

“Must be the Indian food,” my husband said.

The woman then told us, “Yao Ming is completely blind. He’s a total sweetie and still a puppy.” We also learned he was a Chinese Shar Pei mix. Momma and sister were sighted and healthy. Yao Ming, however, might be put down if someone didn’t adopt him that day.

We thought he was pretty impressive. How had he navigated the store and made his way to us so unerringly? We left full of regret over our inability to save him.

I cried halfway home. I tried to put the dog out of my mind and could not. I posted on a hobby forum (pre-Facebook days) in the hope that someone in the Houston community would see and take pity on the big guy.

As I said above, I began my post on that forum with, “I met a dog today.” Not, “I saw a dog” or “There was a dog at…”. The distinction is important. I felt as if I’d met an intelligent being. A personality. A character. In those couple of minutes of interaction, I met someONE. That he had fur and paws and a tail didn’t make him any less a character to me than someone on two legs in manufactured clothing. I wrote my post with teary eyes and included a picture that the rescue group emailed me at my request.

A month later, we had to say goodbye to our beautiful Bayta Grace.

Bayta Grace, RIP August 2006

Another month followed.

A month of grief.

Of an empty house.

Of silence and loneliness.

Of guilt and thinking I didn’t do enough for Bayta (because we never think we do enough for them at the end time).

Then an email arrived. The rescue group that had provided the picture of Yao Ming informed me that he still needed a home and asked if were we interested in adopting him.

I don’t recall there being much discussion but maybe there was. Maybe we talked at length about whether we should take the chance adopting a “special needs” dog. Maybe we both had fallen so hard for him that there was no question.

The car ride home. September 2006.

Whether we did or didn’t, Yao Ming (later called Big Dog) was never really a special needs dog, but he was always special from the very first day we met to his very last.

To ease my now dog-less life, I walk dogs at the local SPCA. So far, the pups are all friendly and gentle, if energetic from being locked up much of the time. None, as yet, has tugged at my heart or looked into me with giant, knowing eyes. I tell myself, and it is true, as yet, that I don’t want another dog because there can’t ever be another Big Dog.

But at times there are the tender memories I would relive in perhaps different manifestations. There are the little soft moments of silence and loneliness that ache to be filled. In those briefest moments, I find myself hoping I will someday come home and say to my husband, “I met a dog today.”

About: Me, the Blog, You, the Dog

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Originally this page had my inaugural post text. I’ve since moved that to “Life & Death” for good reason. As noted on the Welcome page, it began as “Scribbling by the Bayou” and I’d thought I’d keep the name because, in all truth, the bayou is but a ten-minute drive away and I still spend time in the sprawling river beds and bayous of the Upper Texas coast. Now, however, a beach is about a one-hundred-foot walk from my chair every day. This is home, this little barrier island, and while my observations of the natural world are in a separate blog here, my more personal ruminations are taking place in this sandy world far more than the bayou area.

Since I never anticipated living here, never anticipated having two separate blogs and, frankly, planned poorly, I couldn’t just change this to Scribbling by the Beach. I couldn’t do so readily, at any rate. Too, this blog is not associated with the wildlife/nature aspects of the beach although there will certainly be mention of it here and there.

Finally, this blog is a bit of a shotgun approach to my life. I have read that this is not how to get blog fans. That one should limit a blog to a focused topic. Well, honestly, I’m not writing for an audience. I’m writing for myself. That probably explains why I’ve had so little success. (rolls eyes at seeming self-deprecation and whining). This necessitates a name change that better suits the nature of the blog and a layout that allows for more targeted reading. If you want to avoid my blathering about my dog(s?) then you can click on one of the other categories. If you want to only read about him/them—well, you get the idea.

Perhaps I will never feel my words have much value and they will always be scribbling, hen scratch, blather, etc.

Maybe someday I’ll chuck the whole thing and start over with confidence and a new URL that speaks to that confidence.

For now, this is just KC’s Scribbling.

Art & Grief: Finding the Perfection in the Imperfect

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What is that odd-looking, white object in the picture? What does it have to do with grief or art? What have grief and art to do with each other and why am I writing (struggling to write) this at this moment?

That object is a biscornu which, if I recall correctly, is French for “quirky.” These objects at this size are mostly used as pin cushions and the one in my photo is indeed a pincushion made using traditional Norwegian Hardanger embroidery techniques (as opposed to modern techniques).

As to what it has to do with art and grief:

A few months ago, I struggled with my writing process and wrote about it here. You can see in some truly helpful comments that it was suggested that I exercise my creative mind through other art forms. I thought this an excellent idea although I am the furthest thing from creative in any other way other than writing. I can’t draw a straight line, I failed miserably at the various doodle crafts, and I have long since given away my sculpting supplies because I would have to invest in learning how to do it rather than winging it. I do, however, love to do Hardanger embroidery. I thought I could perhaps design my own.

I can’t. So, I gave up.

2018 waned and my writing continued to stutter like a lawn mower in overgrown St. Augustine. The holidays arrived along with the U.S. government furlough including much time for my husband and I to spend together. I decided to try “new to me” traditional Hardanger as a creative endeavor and to make a Christmas gift for someone, the above biscornu.

Through all of this, the Big Blind Dog was lumbering through his days and nights, taking his medications dutifully, eating heartily, begging for scraps always, peeing the Niagara (diuretics), and growing that snore-and-sniffle inducing lump on his cheek without complaint. He and I sat on our couch together, tv on and spewing the horrors of Investigation Discovery or tv off and only the Gulf waves in our heads. Occasionally my husband left his cave, poured a soda, gave the old gray snoot a pat and a biscuit, gave me a kiss, and wandered back into his hideaway.

I stitched.

I stitched and the dog snored and life was sweet and warm. I finished the biscornu and in all those stitches and waves and snoring came words for the page and these pleasant, if bittersweet, blog entries here and here. Writing was a thing again.

Then I looked at the biscornu and really saw it. I’d failed. While it was pretty, it was wrong. Something I’d planned from the beginning that could not be undone was a major flaw within it. Others couldn’t really see the flaw but I knew it was there. It ate at me.

Finally, rather than wrap it with other Christmas gifts, I decided I would keep it. Better to make a better gift for that person later—something not so obviously flawed, even if only to my eyes. I left it on my desk with a mix of sadness and disgust.

We packed up and went to see family out of town and had a perfectly nice visit.

And on the morning we were to return home, we awoke in our usual hotel room and our beautiful, sweet, old Big Dog with his one great flaw, his useless eyes, had left us.

Somewhere in his dreams, he decided he’d had enough of being lifted and guided and medicated and diapered. Somewhere in his sleep he’d decided those last pets from family, the last sniffs of our granddog, the last bites of Woody’s barbeque beef, and his favorite dog biscuits were a good note to end on.

So it goes.

Twelve and a half of his thirteen years.

And a five-hour drive of tears and emptiness and silence.

And furtive momentary pats to the still form in the back seat as if he would miraculously come back to us.

When we arrived home that evening and I walked into our office, there was the biscornu, that silly, imperfect thing, and I realized why the Universe had me keep it. Nothing at all to do with its imperfection—an imperfection I no longer see—and everything to do with the fact that it is a symbol of those long luxurious days next to him, his paws pressed against me. Of those last few days when he’d taken to lying with his head on my leg as he had when he was younger, as if he was trying to tell me goodbye. I wondered then, but had chosen not to be certain.

I am grateful for that time.

I am grateful for that quirky object I kept that had a major flaw, like the flaw of the Big Dog’s blindness. Flaws that are visible but meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Now, the biscornu is perfect in that it reminds me of him. He was perfect in his love.

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Our Beautiful Yao Ming. Big Dog. Boo Boo. Young and happy.

The Joy Between Naps: facing mortality.

When you walk beside someone daily, you don’t always see the subtle changes in their bodies and faces as they age. Perhaps, now and then, you take a step back and look critically and realize they’ve put on ten pounds or they’ve developed lines around their eyes or their hands are age-spotted. But you don’t typically pay attention to these details day to day when you love someone. It’s a human trait, this blissful blindness to the truth about aging. We are all young in the Garden forever—until we aren’t.

It’s no different with our pets; we might see them slowing down, sleeping a little more, playing a little less if we really stopped and thought about it. But most of the time we still see the young dog we’ve seen since we got it past the “destroy everything in the house” stage or the playful cat we have cuddled since we convinced the rescue kitten that humans weren’t all bad.

I have watched our Big Dog (BD) age and been aware of the little things: the scars from this scrape or that, the increasing number of skin tags, the thinning fur. His muzzle has been graying since he was five. He has lost muscle mass both due to age and due to decreased mobility caused by his heart condition, but I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought. Then some months ago as we drove down the interstate and the old boy slept soundly in the back seat, my husband said, “He’s looking old.”

I hadn’t noticed up to that point. More accurately, I had chosen not to notice.

I take pictures of Big Dog several times a week, desperately trying to capture him in these waning months, and I had not registered any significant difference in appearance in the BD of that day versus the BD of pre-heart disease. Slower, yes. More confused, definitely. But “looking old”? No. He was still my puppy. He would always be my puppy—the boy we brought home at nine months, healthy, happy, playful.

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Almost two and “helping” Daddy plant a new flower bed. (Spring 2007)

A few days later, I screwed up the courage to look at him with the eyes not of a person in love but a person who admits that pet dogs don’t usually outlive fifty-four-year-old owners.

I saw the sunken temporal area above his eyes, the crown of his skull turned pointed and prominent, the spreading gray, (endearingly, even on his hindquarters). There is less and less muscle on tired old bones. His coat has become rough and wool-like in spots rather than the smooth, soft fur that it once was. I also found a lump on his left cheek (we later learned this is a tumor that can’t be removed and continues to grow into his neck and ear).

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Big Dog at just under thirteen years old. (Summer 2018)

What I didn’t see that is common in large old dogs were callouses on elbows or knees. The boy has had a pretty cushy life. Or should I say, “cushiony”?  He’s always had at least one good bed wherever we lived, yet usually sleeps on the couch. We have loved and spoiled and medically cared for our dog with as much compassion (and dollars) as we would any child. Some might argue, more so.

About thirteen months ago we almost lost Big Dog to congestive heart failure. The kinds of heart medicines that have been developed by researchers (like those I used to work with developing medicine for humans) saved him and have kept him not only alive but happy. Then as now, we don’t know how much time we have with him.

This time with loved ones is always an unknown and this year that has been made excrutiatingly clear to me with the death of a beloved human sister. Now, perhaps because that loss remains so raw in my heart, I’ve begun to see, every day, these incremental changes in Big Dog as he walks into furniture, stares at walls for long moments as if they contain answers, and follows our voices in the wrong direction.

He is not ready to leave yet. He bounces and woofs when he wants a treat and gets excited about his nightly apple bites from Daddy. He still enjoys exploring the edges of the dunes and the street in front of our house and he delights in sunbathing on the deck on a warm day. There is still joy between long naps.

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I am happy to see him enjoying such seemingly small things without the anticipation of his own mortality.

I am sad for us and our keen awareness of it.

The fruit of the tree of knowledge, were I a believer in such a thing, surely held that we are all finite creatures and our “downfall” was that we would forever struggle against that limitation, unlike our pets that simply love and live.

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Still beautiful to us, Old Man. We love you.

Of Biting Bugs and Gopher Wood

I’d like to ask everyone to follow my new blog that will chronicle our life in Surfside Beach and life on the Upper Texas coast. It will include essays and my own photography. This is today’s entry in the new blog. Thank you. KC

Scribbling by the Beach

Nature does nothing uselessly. — Aristotle

marsh1 Southeast Texas Salt Marsh

Barrier islands in the United States are typically backed by marshland. The marshes have their own magic and sometimes standing on the edge and looking out over the wide stretch of grass and calm, shallow water is as mesmerizing as staring at the sea. Unfortunately, mosquitoes love it just as much as we do. Much of the year, mosquitoes breed in manageable numbers in the marsh because these the tidal flats the constant influx of salt water discourages their activity. A little rain will trigger a breeding episode but not too extensively. A lot of rain, on the other hand…

Recently we had been in what amounted to a short drought and there was nary a mosquito to be found on the island all summer. It was lovely and hot and dry and we were okay with that even if…

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[I present this, not in a bid for sympathy or mere cri de coeur, (okay, maybe a little of those) but an honest solicitation for advice. You don’t have to be a writer or artist of any kind, I think, to perhaps have valuable input here.]

I have forgotten how to create fiction. Not the mechanics, though surely those are rusty and weak, but the soul and flow of my creativity are lost. I’ve watched them wash away like sand castles.

There are myriad reasons why this is the case and most don’t really matter (in terms of fixing the problem, that is). It only matters that it has happened.

I have forgotten how to open myself to the world, to pain, to the darkest, dankest crevices of my mind and spirit. I’d even stopped reading fiction because it made those things more accessible and frightening. Reading fiction made me feel and think, so I shrank from it. I am, at least, reading again, if only in snippets, and taking care not to feel and think.

Even if I could allow that stuff in, I wouldn’t know how to let it coalesce into something creative. I’ve lost the ability to sit in a quiet room or in nature and allow life to bounce around me until a story finds its way through my pores or percolates up from my gut. Instead, those moments of potential reflection and processing are met with trepidation followed by a mad grasp for an electronic device or the television remote. Barring “screen time,” I allow my thoughts to wander only to the most basic concepts: survival, future concerns, chores, loss, loss, loss.

These things cloud my head (with my permission) like a perpetual flu. If I were an addict, I could blame drugs or booze, but my addictions are the 3 x 5 screen in my hand and the constant reexamination of pain and rage. Better to binge on pixels and past hurts than to leave the chasm in my brain agape because I simply can’t properly fill it. The ability to simply be and think: lost.

Standing in the bubble of another human’s existence, attempting to feed off and gauge their being and psyche, then pull it like wool into fine thread I can weave into a fabric of character: lost.

Voices are just noises. Faces, mere images. Fragrances and textures are just smells and surfaces. My senses that once served me as a creator: lost.

I could chalk much of this up to age, disease, grief. Be done with it. Move on. I’ve lost other things. Much harder losses. Things I will never get back. Suck it up, Buttercup. But it is exactly because my creativity has always sustained me in my life that I need it now in the face of those other losses. I have good things in my life, but I still need this. I need to be a whole me for my family and the whole me is the one that writes. If I can’t find my way back to KC the writer: lost.

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Depression and Suicide: Why we can’t say “Why.”

The Void. The Beast. The Black Dog. The Pit. Depression and Suicide are once again prominent in the news cycle. Once again, we swim through speculation and rumor in social media and the word “why” ricochets off Facebook walls and inside our heads.

When someone we perceive as successful, intelligent, wealthy, or otherwise gifted with all those things we think make people happy takes their own life, we ask, “Why him? He had it all?”

Here’s the short, sharp response: Why does cancer take one person and not another? When we ask that question we typically decide chance/a whim of Nature bestowed a bad illness on a good (successful/beautiful/wealthy/young) person. We should view depression no differently.

What? Yes. Please stop thinking of depression as “having a bad day/marriage/money problems/getting old.” Depression isn’t the devil. Nor is it some vague whine-fest because you haven’t gotten your way. It is a disorder and it is wrapped up in the way chemicals in our brain dictate our behavior. I am shorthanding here because it is complex and not fully understood, but depression is clinical, meaning it has a medical cause. The initial trigger may be situational (injury, stress, pregnancy, physical illness), but the result is a clinical illness.

Yet, when the celebrity takes his or her own life, we begin the fruitless and unsatisfying search for answers. When Robin Williams died, it was because he had a debilitating disease threatening his future. Kate Spade, according to so much pointless rumor, had marital issues. Kurt Cobain had everything to live for supposedly, so obviously Courtney did it. (Did you hear my eyes roll?).  Now Anthony Bourdain has died and we ask why? Why this outspoken, energetic man with so much success?

Because: chemicals in the human brain.

Because: Depression.

I truly hate that depression has been labeled a “mental illness”. Oh, it is an illness. But to call it a mental illness slides it into the realm of a) incurable (it isn’t) and b) unknowable (it isn’t). It leaves people with the impression that people with depression, with this mental illness, are crazy and need to be shunned, can’t be fixed, and their “mental problems” are just too hard to deal with so Run Away, Run Away.

So, let me be forthright and let me talk about Mr. Bourdain for a moment as if he sort of relates to myself even though I know nothing about his particular situation.

I watched him only rarely. What I saw of him was, in outward appearances, the very opposite of me: loud, brash, opinionated.

Oops. Opinionated. So, not so opposite after all. As I read that character trait of his several times this morning, I realized something about all of us (humans) that is especially true of depressives; we have something to say and we need to be heard. Yet, we often feel as if we are screaming into a void.

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I’m not saying this is specifically a precipitant of suicide, I am saying that ultimately, in our crises, a depressive is not someone wallowing in self pity and pain, but someone who IS in pain and feeling utterly unheard. In a life that is extraordinary, rich, beautiful, fulfilling and filled with love—none of that matters if you are not heard when you are hurting. NONE OF IT.

This is why I write. Pure and simple. I don’t write to create art. I have told myself that I do, but that’s bullshit. I write because, while I am a mouse in public, shy and so soft-voiced it annoys people, on the page I can put exactly who I am and what hurts (and what brings me joy). I am one of the most opinionated people you will ever meet, but unless I know you well, you will likely only ever see that in these pages (or a Facebook post).

I have moments when the chemicals in my brain say, “Sure, you are much loved by your spouse. Sure, you live in a beautiful place. Sure, your daughter and her family are happy, healthy, and financially stable. Sure, you are not grossly unhealthy. BUT you are an abject FAILURE.” In those moments, I need desperately to be heard.

I can’t tell you exactly why Mr. Bourdain or anyone else takes their own life (beyond that the chemicals in their brains are betraying them). I am not telling you that circumstances don’t play a role in their depression. Our pain is often (usually) triggered by very real concerns. But I can tell you this—in that crisis moment, when you aren’t being heard, when you believe no amount of talking or writing can express your pain enough to bring even one person around to understanding you, the chemicals in your brain are winning. They can convince you that your loved ones really will be happier without you. (Because they won’t have to listen to you cry anymore. They won’t have to pay your medical bills or worry about the fact that you might off yourself.) They really will get over it. (Because you’re not much use to them as a depresso, so it’s like getting over a lost puppy, right?) They really will understand that your pain was too much to bear. (Because they saw that you were in abject misery like a dog that can’t eat or walk, right?)

I have been fortunate in that I have taught myself to flip the switch and shut out that screwy rationale through some mental gymnastics and meditative techniques. The ones who didn’t learn that, or learned it and lost their grip on it, they weren’t selfish or cowards. They simply couldn’t flip the switch and the chemicals won.

I ask again, with these latest celebrity deaths, rethink how you view depression. Perhaps do some reading. Talk to those who actually suffer with it and listen to them. The Pit is deep, but with more people understanding, perhaps those who struggle to flip the switch can be pulled out more often rather than succumbing.

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml

More on neurochemicals and depression.