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We Survived 2009

Rabbit stew. Looks almost appealing.

Fifteen months ago my friends and I were wondering if we’d all lose our houses and be living in the woods. Should we get a gun? Who among us knows how to fish? How do you make rabbit stew, anyway? If you bring me a squirrel I can probably fry it up, but no, it won’t taste like chicken.

The stock market lost 37% in 2008. In 2009 it rose 27%, but that’s people’s retirement money and a good chunk of it’s still gone.

A friend of mine sells GM cars; I prayed for him every single day, but somehow he survived. Thank you, President Obama, even as you paid a terrible political price.

We survived 2009!

Tonight, New Year’s Eve, I’m cooking up some red beans and rice, in honor of my dear friends in Louisiana; they’ve survived too, and after Hurricane Katrina, when Phil went missing, every extra year is a blessing. His dad Ervin would probably add some boudin to the dish; it’s a Cajun blood sausage, considered quite the delicacy, but I don’t like it. It’s spicy-hot and I don’t do blood sausage, especially from filthy gas stations outside Grand Mamou. Ervin used to go nuts after that stuff, but I use Polish sausage instead.

Red beans and rice with shrimp, done the right way; stew on top of the rice in a bowl.

In October of ’09 I brought home a little pooch from the Humane Society of Indianapolis. It’s been six weeks now and I think I’ve finally got the hang of toilet training. Despite a few tense moments Luke has been a joy to me; I should have gotten a dog years ago, we could have been together all this time. But I’ll sure take the one I’ve got. Now that I’ve corrected my mistakes he’s corrected his; the stake in the yard with the 30-foot lead has taught him, here’s where you go. Luke to Josh: “Why didn’t you say so?”

He is so cute, so sweet; if only the humans were like that. My favorite behavior of his currently is how he burrows underneath his Purdue blanket, so when he’s in his house, all I can see is a lump of cloth. Somewhere under there is 10 pounds of terrier lost in the folds. He’s also great about eating my leftovers; a dab of chicken or steak here, a ham hock there, some cheesy rice and broccoli—and everything goes better with COTTAGE CHEESE!

We have a routine for treats too; he sits on the throw rug under the sink, I sit on the kitchen steps and put a treat on my knee. He watches, then I say, “Come!” He races over, grabs the treat and takes it back to the rug before he devours it. But wait, there’s more—I’ve got another one in my pocket!

Luke on Day 2 at home.

In 2010 I have work to do; after discussion with my spiritual director Marcia, I’m going to try letting God have much more power in my life. This is a one-month experiment, which I ought to be able to get through; after that we’ll evaluate. The program involves writing some personal prayers that really discuss what’s going on with me, working every day on finishing my new novel about Gay Christian marriage, and spending 20 minutes a day in silent meditation, which I’ve neglected for some time now. I also have some other goals, but they’re not New Year’s resolutions; they’ll take longer to work out, and besides I need an attitude adjustment. At this late date I’m no longer very good at running my own life, so it’s time to let God take the wheel for awhile. Perhaps every serious believer eventually comes to a place like this, but I’m here now, so it’s time to trust more and screw up less.

The beans and rice are about done, so farewell 2009, we survived you. Best wishes to Peter, Leonardo and all of you in 2010; I wish you health, prosperity and a greater awareness of the Ultimate Reality.++

A Christmas Eve Baptism for My Little Boy

Luke at home, 10/25/09

I very much believe in baptism. It is one of two sacraments ordained and commanded by Christ. He himself underwent it at the hands of John in the River Jordan. Baptism is how a person is joined to the Church. Some people call it a rite of initiation, for others it means we’re born again; but I’m not sure those words convey its supreme importance. By baptism we become one with Christ; if we’re old enough to talk we make vows to be one with him. If not, those vows are said by adults on our behalf, but the oneness stays the same, whatever our age.

I believe in infant baptism, ideally the 8th day after birth. I believe in all baptisms at any age. I got the water when I was two or three. My Methodist-baptized mother joined the Episcopal Church and had all three of us baptized; Steve was 5, Dick was 7. Mom said Fr. Ferguson paraded us around the church, showing us off as the newest Christians in the world.

I don’t remember it, but she loved it. I still believe the walk down the center aisle, holding the hand of the new initiate, is the right way to baptize a soul. We must have been a sight, three little stairstep boys, holding hands.

A couple of years ago on Christmas Eve I was present for more baptisms in my home parish; new adult converts and their children, as well as a grandson of the parish, who might have been 10 years old. I know his granddad, the former religion beat writer for the local newspaper, a nice man. How thrilling it must have been for him to live to see the baptism of his grandson. It was thrilling for me to be present for the baptism of Byron’s grandson.

Tonight, another Christmas Eve, we have freezing rain, and I can’t make it to church. This bothers me, but the weather was predicted and I have a backup plan for worship. It’s not as soul-feeding as midnight mass, but it will nourish me nonetheless.

This year, I have someone new in my life, a little rat terrier named Luke. He’s an excellent boy. I planned ahead and gave him a great feast (he likes Skippy Premium), so big he couldn’t eat it all. But while he ate, I sat on my kitchen steps and told him about Jesus as best I could. What is it like to recount the story of salvation in your own words? Have you ever done that, with anyone, even a dog who has no idea what Christmas means? All Luke knows is Skippy.

I did okay, with a simple retelling of the birth, life, parents, ministry, miracles, persecution, execution and resurrection of the Lord of Life. Luke kept eating.

When he was done (with chunks of beef and chicken yet remaining), I reached into his water dish and baptized him in the Name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. I hope I didn’t trivialize Christianity, but I want my boy in heaven. He was very patient while I did my little water thing.

He has no sins to repent of, but I want him with me forever. He wasn’t born again; maybe I was, maybe not.

St. Francis blessed the animals, but the truth is they bless us. They’re simple little beings who react on instinct and impulse—but oh my, is he a lover already. Should not he belong in the company of saints?

He let me do this, then went outside in the freezing rain. He doesn’t like the wet and cold, but he likes sniffing every chance he gets.

Back inside, we played a little while, then he went back in his house; all is well, peace on earth. He’s now snuggled up in a Purdue Boilermakers blanket, safe and snug. He has no idea what “baptism” means, but then neither do adult humans.

God said, and people heard him say it, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Merry Christmas, Luke. We’re going to heaven, buddy. We’re going to laugh and play and belly-rub, and there’s an endless supply of Skippy. Miles and miles to run with no one saying you can’t!

O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.++

Luke Escapes! But Terriers Need to Run

Luke in his house, before I learned to close the door for the sake of my dinner guests.

I had a fright the other day; I trusted Luke but he decided to escape. I knew he would sooner or later, but the first time you lose your dog is always traumatic.

I’d let him outside on his 30-foot chain for several minutes, but since this is December and it’s chilly or worse, I don’t want him out there for too long. I went to get him; I thought we had a pattern established, that once he’s on the deck-patio within a few feet of the back door, I could unleash him and he’d bound up the steps to the door. This time he decided to take off.

I chased him around the yard but then he scurried off across the street. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him in the roadway without my protection. I couldn’t possibly catch him as he chased down the boulevard median, green grass and no obstructions; fortunately, no traffic. He was off.

I went back inside and worried. Part of me was rational; I control the food supply and it’s cold out there. The other part of me paced from window to window, hoping to catch a glimpse. I finally decided to relax and wait him out. I’ve worked hard to teach him where home is and I’m pretty sure he knows. But I’ve only had him for two months and we’re still learning to live together.

In a few minutes I tried again and saw him across the street, at a house we often pass on our walks. I went outside to fetch him but he wouldn’t come, no matter how loud I shouted his name and clapped my hands. He took off again west, then turned north up 2nd Street. I was only wearing a sweatshirt, not a jacket, and I yelled, “I’m not dressed for this,” as if a little divadom would help. But he was gone again so I went back inside.

The whole escapade only lasted 15 minutes but I was concerned. There’s very little traffic in this town but he’s a little dog, 10 pounds, a foot high. And he’s a rat terrier, the kind who loves to race and chase things, and he could easily dart out into the street before a driver even saw him.

Tick, tick, tick. Luke, come back!

Well, he did, of course; I control the food supply and it was cold out there. Terriers are athletes, no fat on their bodies, and he doesn’t like cold any more than I do. By the 15-minute mark he was nosing around the backyard.

I got him inside, didn’t chastise him and locked him up. His cage (called a “crate” in marketing-speak, because who would want to put a beloved pet in a cage?) contains a nice warm blanky he just loves to curl up under. I was very upset with him, but I was also calm. Dogs need to run, especially terriers. I don’t blame him, or myself; instead I wish I had an enclosed estate where he could sprint till he was fagged and dragging. Or a dog park, which this little town doesn’t have.

Every time I let him out of his house, he jumps and runs around in circles, until I indicate it’s time to come to the kitchen, in which case he chases off at 60 miles an hour from the living room through the dining room into the kitchen, where he invariably crashes into the appliances. He’s hilarious.

Then he will sit on the rug under the sink, a rug he’s managed to move several feet askew, where he waits for me attentively, all eyes and ears. Food? Outside? Pee? Playtime? Anything, Pops, just show, don’t tell, I no speaka ze English.

When I finally get there (my human walk takes eight seconds tops), he’s ready for anything.

I’m learning to tell whether he’s hungry or thirsty; once I get there, if he heads to his food and water twin-dish, that’s one thing, but if he doesn’t, he wants to go outside. If I move toward the back door, he races to it and sniffs his leash, then sits on the doormat with that same intense concentration. Outside, outside? He doesn’t mind the snow, sleet or rain until he does.

Once I bring him back indoors, he very politely consents to let me dry him off with a paper towel. When it’s really cold and windy, he’ll even let me put a sweater on him.

Amidst all this we’ve had toilet training issues; I used to let him run free in the house, but then I regretted it. So he spends most of his time lately in the cage with that warm blanket. He used to poop when we went on walks (as well as in the dining room) until I learned to stake him outside and leave him for 15 minutes. I haven’t had to do the paper towel-and-plastic-bag routine with him since, because I learned to stop teaching him that walks are for pooping in other people’s yards; now he goes in ours.

It’s still a lot of restriction for his life, full-time in a cage or on a leash or a chain. I hope to ease up soon. I want him with me, not downstairs in a cage. But I also want a dining room I can serve food in.

The learning process is mine more than his. I no speaka ze Dog, but I can learn his body language. Boy needs to stretch his legs on a regular basis; terriers are born to run. Maybe I’ll buy a bike next spring and tie his leash to it.

A few weeks ago when he was still free inside the house, I tried to teach him to bring me his leash when he needs to go out; didn’t work. He won’t take it into his mouth, any more than he’ll chase a ball or go fetch something; I thought all dogs will chase a ball or fetch, but Luke gives me a look like Jack Benny, “Oh, really?”

This two-month relationship means we’re still new. I’m as clueless about ze Dog as he is about ze English. But we’ll get there, I think, it just takes time. I can tell you this: he is as loving an animal as there ever was. He thanks me all the time for his food; at only 10 pounds he’s never going to put a dent as he crashes into the stove. Boy just needs to run, that’s all, and to have rules we both understand.

I had the loveliest dream about him the other night; dreams are crazy, a visual word salad, one tangent after another, but amidst the chaotic reverie of something or other, I looked over and said, “Is that my dog?”

It was, and we held each other as he collapsed with joy; he’d been afraid I was run over by a car, and was overcome when I found him again.++

Luke Learns a Word, I Learn a Technique

Sit Horizontal

You want me to sit? Why didn't you just say so?

I’m starting to think there are no stupid dogs, only stupid dog owners. And I’ve been one.

I have a new dog, a 3-year-old rat terrier mix named Luke, whom I adopted from the Humane Society of Indianapolis. I grew up with fox terriers, but have never had a dog of my own. The Humane Society marked me down as experienced, but in fact I’ve discovered I’m not.

He’s a fine, healthy little boy with an uncertain background. He’s well-socialized in some ways, seldom barks or gets aggressive when he shouldn’t and has a wonderful instinctive disposition to be a most happy fella. But at other times he’s absolutely clueless; for instance, he doesn’t know how to play. He has no interest in squeaky toys or chasing after a ball; I thought all dogs knew how to do that. He won’t play tug-of-war with a sock. He loves to interact with me but his repertoire is limited to jumping up or lying on his back for a belly rub. I suspect he mostly grew up on the streets.

But he’s also been around people, probably from spending the last few months at the animal shelter; he has no problem accepting a leash and sleeping in a crate. He has a good appetite, is the ideal weight for his size and breed (10 pounds) and walks away from his dish when he’s full, leaving a few pellets behind—so I don’t need to worry about giving him too much food. The shelter feeds their dogs once a day so that food dishes are never empty, while I feed Luke twice a day. He generally cleans his plate but not always, so I’m able to adjust his amounts for what he needs.

But toilet training has been an issue, and I’ve been clueless until the last few days. But now we’re getting there, and each day is better and better. He can’t learn if I don’t know how to condition him; it’s Psychology 101. Perform the desired behavior, get a reward. The onus for performing the desired behavior is on me, not on him. He’s a dog, he no speaka ze Inglish.

I can’t “make him do what I want.” But I can and must help him learn behaviors that put us both at ease. How awful it must have been for him the last two weeks to figure out what I want when I no speaka ze Dog. Why is this crazy person upset with me?

But he hasn’t given up or lost any affection for me, he just keeps trying until he gets it right—meaning I do. And yesterday he learned a word: Sit.

He already knew how to sit, but he didn’t know how to Sit. But now Sit = Treat! Luke likes his treats. Oh, is that what you meant? Why didn’t you say so?

It’s been two days now since he pooped on the rug. And two days since I learned always to have treats in my pocket.

I get treats for pooping? Hmm, this ain’t a bad gig. No, boy, it’s where you poop that counts.

More little lessons await us. “Sit” ≠ “before we go outside.” Sit = sit wherever we are, before something good happens, no matter where we are. I’m the one in charge of his mental associations. He can’t associate unrelated concepts unless I teach them to him, and the way to teach a dog is with rewards.

I’ve changed more than he has since I got him October 22. He’s always been affectionate and reasonably smart, but now he’s starting to have a competent human to be with. Yay for our side!

One of my biggest lessons has been to stop thinking that restrictions are bad. His crate helps him stay out of trouble, and besides he likes it; it’s Luke-sized, with a very nice stadium blanket (Indiana University, fit for a dog here in Purdue Land), great for sleeping. That it also keeps him from eliminating when I’m asleep or not watching means he doesn’t get in trouble and there’s no friction in the house. We’re both happy fellas.

LukeAtRest

IU football has gone to the dogs. Again.

Yesterday we tried another new thing: another restriction (to my former way of thinking) that in fact increases his freedom. We went to Wally World and bought a stake-out kit, so he could be outdoors with me while I rake leaves. The idea of being outdoors without going for a walk was new to him; he lasted about 20 minutes before I decided he was getting overstimulated and took him back in the house. It was mid-afternoon, kids were getting out of school, other dogs were going on walks, the guy next door was also working outside, and it got to be too much. But now Luke knows he can be outdoors in the sunshine and I’m right over there, while he has more independence and can look at stuff. He’s got a 30-foot radius but that’s a 60-foot diameter, outdoors in fresh air. We’re going to try it again this afternoon, because I’ve got a lot of leaves to bag up.

Before I met Luke I would never have chained up a dog outside. But in fact it makes us closer emotionally, and gives him a better idea of what’s our yard and what’s not. That is crucial, because I don’t have a fence, and of course I don’t want him running off and getting lost or being hurt.

That’s really been my #1 concern, helping him adjust to a new home and a new human relationship.

Home is a place with walls—that is, restrictions AND safety. The outside world can’t come in, this is our house.

This is our yard, from here to here. Dogs of course have a territorial instinct, but Luke’s got to know where his territory is and is not. It takes time to figure out. (I’m so glad for that new stake and chain.)

This is our neighborhood. If he does someday find himself on his own, I want him to be able to find his way back to my crate, where his supper dish is, where his pal lives.

Once he knows everything he needs to know, we can try even more freedom. But it’s all got to have a structure; Sit = sit. First you sit, then supper comes. First you sit, then we go outside. First you sit, then you get what you want. It’s not just “do as you’re told,” it’s “follow the rules so you’ll be safe.”

And it’s my job, not his, to know the rules and provide the structure until the rules are his own habits. Go ahead and run, baby, but when I call, you come back. I’ve got treats.

There are no dumb dogs, just dumb owners.++