Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Our stars, ourselves, our dogs — unleashed

By Felix Carroll

A waning crescent moon casts dull light as if powered by nearly dead batteries — barely enough light to make heads or tails of the two heads and one tail toiling along the frozen, deep-rutted roadside at 10 p.m. on a week night.

It's a quiet, ancient evening, and crude words about bowel movements would seem a violation of something sacred. But here goes nothing:

"Come on: Poop!"

The command translates into cold puffs of disintegrating vapor. If ash trees could say "Shhh!" they would. But they can't, which is good because I'm in no mood for sanctimonious trees.

The tail belongs to a dog that presumably has to poop, but won't. Or can't. He's befuddled. We both are. This is new to us — these leashed excursions along the guardrail by our house. There are no sidewalks around these parts. And not enough streetlights to land a nocturnal housefly.

Here we are, the two of us. Until two weeks ago, he was a dog we could let out untethered. He'd do what he does, and he'd come back when called. For reasons maybe only the whispers of an ancient evening can explain, he has taken to running from home and not returning on his own recognizance.

"Just poop and be done with it!"

It's cold. Really cold. An all-star cast of constellations has arranged itself like Christmas lights entangled in the shrubbery of the cosmos. Look at all that — this huge, magnificent, expanding universe, speeding silently into the unknown and unknowable. We're but a fleck of a flick, aren't we?  What does it all mean? How did it all begin?

Excuse me for a second.

"Go poop!"

Up until a mere two weeks ago, he could be relied upon to stay put on the property. He'd snooze on the front porch. Or chew a stick on the hill. Or admire earlier bowel movements. He'd exercise himself by doing laps around the house. Or not. He was there, within the boundaries, without us having to think twice. He'd push himself up with an oomph and set himself back down with a harrumph.

But last week I found myself tracing his paw prints through the snow, over a creek, into the yard of a cop who has "No Trespassing" signs posted. My tracks backtracked from there. We cased the roads by car. I found him trotting on Main Road heading east. He had a crazy grin.

Jeez, will you look at that sky. You can see the Milky Way. String theorists believe there is more than one universe. Did you know that? What the heck does that mean?

Pardon me again:

"Come on: Just poop! Concentrate!"

He's sniffing. That's what he does. He reads the world through the Braille of odor. He could sniff the varnish off an antique chest.

He was born to an abandoned mother somewhere down in Tennessee. Through a dog rescue outfit, Santa Claus brought him north three years ago and gave him to our boy for Christmas. His name is Gunther (the dog, not the boy). He's calico-colored and funny looking. He looks at us with love and gratitude (again, the dog not the boy). If it weren't for us, he'd still be in Tennessee, probably lurking around a Waffle House and barking in a Southern accent. You cannot explain this to him.

Despite all the stupid things I've done throughout the years — the time wasted, the wrong turns taken, the false starts — I'm a family man now. If I could only make the dog understand how good he and I have it, how life only gets worse beyond these boundary lines. There's food here. Lovely people. Warm beds. Decent views. Historically low 30-year-fixed interest rates. All I need him to do is to lay unleashed on the front porch like a paperweight helping me keep it all from blowing away.

Jeez, thank the Lord above for engineered, moisture-resistant breathable fabrics. It's cold out here. Funny thing: In ancient times, if Santa brought me a dog for Christmas, it would be for one purpose only: skinning him and wearing him. And I look good in calico. You cannot explain that to Gunther. I’ve tried.

"Poop! Now!"

"Just a sec," he says. "I'm in the middle of something."

When he finally gets into the kangaroo position to do his thing, he looks at me, humiliated. We're both humiliated.  

"Ya moron," I say, looking the other way.

If there was a Big Bang, what existed before the Big Bang? And did ancient man ever wish upon a star? He discovered fire. He manipulated steel. He tamed the earth and planted crops. If he wished upon a star, at what point did he realize he could wish for three more wishes?

But that's the problem, isn't it? We want more than what we've got. We cross boundaries. We trespass. 

The dog is tangled in the leash now. The stars are tangled in the cosmos. The universe is expanding, and if there's a boundary somewhere out there, then what's on the other side of that boundary? For reasons only an ancient evening could explain, we're pulled, always and everywhere. And there isn't a dog fence strong enough.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A cat, a cradle, and a Sunday challenge

Perhaps the most practical and inexcusably overlooked of the 10 commandments is the fourth one, which implores the children of Israel to chill the heck out one day a week.

“Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy,” is how it was miraculously imprinted upon those stone tablets, a command aimed at those gathered at Mount Sinai and, by proxy, me at 394 Main Road, and maybe you, wherever you are. Today, in 2015, the pursuit of holiness doesn’t come up much in casual conversation. (Coveting things — your neighbor’s wife, or house, or Harley, or donkey, and taking the Lord’s name in vain in your enviousness — gets way more airplay.)

But when you read the small print of the fourth commandment, you’re bound to be delighted. Essentially the deal is that after six days of labor, thou shalt not do any work, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates. Apparently, because God was tuckered out on the seventh day of creation and presumably lounged by the brand new seas and engaged in some bird watching, we have every right to be tuckered out, too, and lounge around His creation.

I’ve only recently deduced why a friend of mine has so many unfinished home repair projects. It’s because he keeps holy the Sabbath in all its traditional, prescribed ways: Church, followed by a full day enjoying time with his wife and three children. That leaves little time for chores. Indeed, after 18 months, three piles of fir flooring remain in bundles in his upstairs hallway, and the back of his house is only partially sided.

“It’ll get done,” he says. I’m not certain that’s true, but I am certain his disarray isn’t the sign of negligence and laziness. Rather it’s the sign of a guy who understands that his children are growing up quickly and that he better enjoy them before he drops dead.

I’ve coveted my neighbor’s resolve.

This summer, my deck has gone unstained, the vegetable garden is only three-quarters planted, its fencing still not secured, and anyone who snoops around probably concludes I now live like a slob. Yes, I have undertaken an experiment of keeping holy the Sabbath Day (particularly the fine print), nary lifting a shovel or a paintbrush. As an obsessive compulsive, I grow existentially disturbed by unfinished projects. But my wife and our boy are psyched by this weekly ceremonial disengagement from the forward-heaving herd to explore the wondrous wild places in the greater hill country. We hike places we’ve never been to, and we find lakes to sit beside, swim within and paddle above.

Back when I was a self-righteous teen and disdainful of the adult world with its seemingly myopic chase of money and career, I latched on to the writings of that transcendentalist slacker and backwoods bard Henry David Thoreau who famously sentenced himself to solitary confinement on the banks of Walden Pond to figure out the facts of life. He famously wrote: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Now older and wilier, I respectfully suggest that’s a lot of pressure to put upon oneself, particularly when one works three jobs and barely has time to chew his own food. We who sometimes feel like office slaves in a Dilbert comic strip—our soul waning, its reflected light blocked by the orb of an oppressive mortgage payment—already know the essential facts of life: You’ve got to scramble your way through it and insure yourself against future regrets. I can live with chores left unfinished, but it’d be disastrous to grow into old age having not spent enough time with family.

Here’s a little test: If, as a father, you find yourself driving along, flipping the stations and settling on “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, and if you find yourself idly humming along untroubled, it’s time to make haste to keep holy the Sabbath Day. On the other hand, if you think “Cat’s in the Cradle” is the scariest song you’ve ever heard — ever — maybe we’ve run into each other at a lake or hiking trail on the Sabbath Day. Indeed, that awful song serves as a how-to guide in how not to be father.

For review, a child is born. The father is a hard-working yet self-centered jerk. The boy wants his father’s attention — to play catch, things like that — but the father is always too busy for him. Years go by. Promises are left unfulfilled. The son grows up and leaves home whereby the father now wants his attention, but now the son is too busy. I have no clue what role the “cat” and the “cradle” play in this tragedy, but it’s a God-awful song and probably a spot-on depiction of many parent-child relationships when there’s been a failure to keep holy the Sabbath.

We’re three weeks into unshackling ourselves from the duller pursuits of adulthood one day a week. To heck with the unstained deck. It’s pressure-treated anyway, and you can’t even see it from the road.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Let it snow, and here's how

By Felix Carroll

Ah, snow days. Manna from heaven, when schoolchildren receive such abrupt, such agreeable, such authorized consent to shift their gaze from the linoleum-lined hallways of logic to the soft, vast horizon of leisure.

For all the meteorological talk of "snow emergencies" in winter, there are equal and opposite dreams of “snow days.” Schoolchildren fog up wintry bedroom windows wondering, wishing and praying for them.

That said: This is a message to all you school teachers out there. Stop it. Stop it now. We know what you're up to. We know many of you are encouraging our children to make ritual overtures to Mother Nature, or Father Winter, or Sister Snowdrift, in order to “conjure” snow days. But just a cursory review of case law reveals the peril to impressionable young’uns:

• Take for instance McGillicuddy v. Podunk School District. You may recall back in 2003, a Mr. Russell, fourth grade history teacher, was hoping he could score a day off so he could surf eBay in his singular pursuit of a mini-Mount Rushmore print with the wrong Roosevelt. So he tells his students about the hallowed tradition of wear their pajamas inside out and backward the night before they want a snow day. (The scientific rationale is simple: If you wear them the regular way, you'll have a regular school day. Duh.)

Yeah, it all sounds like good fun, doesn't it? But try telling that to the parents of little Petey McGillicuddy. What Mr. Russell didn't factor in was that little Petey wore footed pajamas. (Inside out, no problem. But backward? We're talking a one-way trip on the sprained-ankle express.) Put it this way: By the time his parents “extricated” Petey from his beloved blue pajamas with the printed red triceratops, lawyers from Winklestein & Partners were on their way over with cider doughnuts, a case of Dr. Pepper and their calculators.

• Take for instance Kaplanski v. Pleasant Valley Schools. Back in 2011, a Miss Bloomsdell, an elementary school art teacher beloved for her installations made from airsickness bags, urged her students to try the time-honored ritual of placing a silver spoon under their pillows before going to bed. (The rationale? Metal attracts precipitation. I shouldn’t have to explain that.)

Granted, who could possibly have imagined that young Tina Kaplanski would excitedly spill the beans to her daddy once the snow began accumulating?

“Look, Dad, the spoon did it! Miss Bloomsdell was right!”

And who could have predicted her father would fall into a fit of rage because snow days for the Kaplanskis meant lost wages due to childcare costs? Early the next morning detectives were able to trace a set of man-size footprints in two feet of snow from the Kaplanski home to Tito’s Diner where Mr. Kaplanski allegedly emptied the cutlery bin of spoons and proceeded to use them to pelt passing snowplows.

Tina's dad was found later that morning in a snow bank soundly sleeping with a salad fork under his head, allegedly in a sad attempt to conjure a heat wave. Long story short: The district was ordered to cough up enough money to the Kaplanskis to pay for both a live-in nanny and a new snow blower.

• There’s also the case of Chinchillo v. Chico Public Schools. Back in 2009, one Sally Chincillo, upon the instructions of her first grade teacher (Miss Betty “We Were Only Having Fun, Jeez Louise” Fortuna) opened the door to her parents’ freezer and danced the "Hokey Pokey" to summon the snow gods. Turns out, as expected, her fair village took a pounding from a vicious nor’easter, but after her short incantation, little Sally forgot to shut the freezer door, whereby food product (allegedly dairy-based) melted and stunk up the entire house. The Chinchillos, claiming they ate the melted food product anyway, dry-heaved before a jury of their peers and were awarded $2.2 million for pain, suffering and “severely upset tummies.”

• Finally, there’s Jasper v. Peoria Free School District. Back in 2010, a Mr. Danner, popular gym teacher who doesn’t mind students wearing black-soled sneakers inside the gymnasium, shared the best way to beckon a blizzard. It involved placing two cotton balls on the windowsill, flushing a tray of ice cubes down the toilet and running as fast as you can around the dinner table five times before bedtime.

By the time first responders arrived at the Jasper home, a confident Mr. Danner had already boarded his flight down to Boca for a long weekend. Little Eddie’s parents claimed their beloved first-born hadn't taken into account that the family dinner table is situated against a wall. His mother later estimated that, upon impact, Little Eddie was running at a speed of upwards to 4 mph.

He’s fine now. It was all settled out of court. With the proceeds of the case, he and his family are now living comfortably in a villa in the Dominican Republic where it hasn't snowed in four millennia.