Humans Can Learn From Dogs

“You know,” said a neighbor, “if people were a bit more like dogs, the world could be a better place.”

After a couple of weeks of taking a small black and tan rescue dog into our family, I’m learning a great deal from someone who communicates without ever saying a word. Luna, it turns out, is wise beyond her 10-months.

Dogs, like humans, need socialization. Being locked up in a house with a finite world of experiences can make them frightened of the world, afraid of coming across new and different interactions. The world is one big exciting place, and for dogs, one big playground to explore.

Luna needs several long walks a day. And while burning off puppy energy is one benefit, her getting to know the world and meeting strangers – both two and four-legged versions – is essential. Dogs can either learn to be curious or fearful of the world, the latter leading to problems down the road.

Standing in the middle of the street, my neighbor and I watch as our two dogs begin measuring up the other. Leashes pull tight as two noses come closer, and a few nervous barks ring out. A nip here, a retreat returned with a playful stance, and soon tails are wagging. All is good in the world again.

He then reaches down to reward his dog, casting a long stroke across the silver coat.

“Good boy, Spanky,” he said.

In some ways, people and dogs are remarkably alike, sharing universal instincts for living in packs, territorially protective, and generous to a fault with their heart.

People are the same. We tend to want to live near each other, making regular social interaction, and in times of need, prove to be willing to give a stranger the benefit of the doubt and shirt off our back. Dogs, in many ways, are a human’s best qualities amplified.

I love dogs. I love the honesty, the faithfulness, and that all they want from you is love on you and make your life better.

All of which brings me to my continued concern for today’s world. Today it seems as if society teeming with anxiety, fearful of strangers, and predisposed to be afraid or angry. In response to our retreat into the impersonal world of social media and being protectively locked up in our homes, have we forgotten our roots of empathy and understanding? Have we somehow devolved into being fearful of the unfamiliar, uncaring of others, and always ready for a fight?

I sincerely hope I am wrong.

Maybe we all need a couple of daily walks, leaving our phones and narrow focus of social-media friends on the kitchen table. Getting out, finding new faces, and people – much like our dogs do – might be good for us. The world is not perfect, but it certainly is not worth tearing down to the ground.

Let’s get out more. Meet more people. And as our dogs teach us, wag our tails more.

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Luna, our 10-month old Australian Kelpie, leads by example.

COVID Challenges Time-Honored Traditions

The blue ink pen resting on the carpet below, my arm froze in mid-air.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know in this COVID world if I’m supposed to pick up your pen for you or not.”

As a doctor, the irony brought a laugh due to the awkward situation. Should I be polite and kneel and pick her pen up? Or should I stand there and act like heel and do nothing?

Reaching down, she answered the question for us both.

“No kidding,” she said. “This COVID is changing everything in the world.”

I’ll admit I’m getting the hang of always having a mask, but what about the time-honored demonstrations of respect for helping others with the simplest tasks? Opening a door is now a risk as is offering to hand offer to hand another a plastic water bottle. Even encroaching on one’s personal space is now considered not only rude but dangerous. Consider the act nestling close to a stranger to share a secret a thing of the past.

Dang strange world today.

As a child, my mother taught me to always or hold open a door for another and be quick to help others when items dropped on the floor.

But the one gesture I miss the most in today’s COVID world is the handshake. Playing second fiddle only offering you personal word of assuance, the handshake remains one of the world’s most valuable and universal currencies. Time-honored, respected, and considered the final bonding moment of an agreement, the handshake is now being shunned. Welcome to the elbow-tap. If not so pervasive, you might find the motion derived from the sketch comedy group, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Minister of Silly Walks? How about the Department of Assorted Appendage Taps?

Imagine if you will world leaders sitting around a large board room, signing and exchanging documents. Moments later, chairs slide back, and everyone leans across the table and offers an elbow. Somehow the optics don’t carry the same weight for me.

One of the fundamentals of sportsmanship is that, regardless of how badly you got stomped on the field of play, you are to shake hands with your opponent afterward, thus clearly defining the end of the competition. And as hard as this lesson is to learn as a kid, the ability compartmentalizes the moment of conflict becomes a critical skill to carry into adulthood. And the handshake is universal punctuation calling the contest to a close.

But in today’s world, even the highly-caffeinated cousin of the handshake, better known as a high-five, is on hiatus. No longer to ballplayers offer mid-air slaps after home runs or 60-foot putts on the green. No, instead, there is a choice of awkward inaction or other contactless motion invented on the fly.

But at the end of the day (post-COVID), I always hope to feel the urge to pick up a dropped item for a stranger. And for the record, I’m not willing to bet world peace on an elbow tap.

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New Member of Family Unexpectedly Arrives

I’m five hours on the road and call back to hear my wife’s voice. Heading out before the sun peeked over the horizon, I’d tried to slip out quietly. My watch tells me I’m calling during her morning coffee window.

“How are you doing this morning, babe?”

Road noise fills the background, unusual for this time of the day. Coffee is usually in the kitchen with newspapers.

A few words in, I recognize her voice is exploding like a pan of Jiffy Pop popcorn. I’m not sure what is happening, but the calendar says today is early August, not Christmas.

“You won’t believe what I have in the car,” she said.

Knowing she considers the local hardware store her playground, I toss out a few ideas. Plants or maybe a new rug, I suggest. She’s proven she can fit anything into her car.

“No, a puppy!”

The hot asphalt reminds me I’m far from the beach where we live.

“A what?” I said. “Like a puppy- puppy?”

I can’t recall the next few minutes of conversation, but I know if asked to pick colors out of a box of Crayons, her words would be the most vibrant shades in the box.

“She’s so excited she’s already climbed from the back of the car to the front seat with me,” she said. “She is so cute.”

I realize my world already is changing since pulling out of the driveway earlier in the morning. And believe it or not, I’m excited about this new chapter. Until now, we’ve been between dogs, our last passing two years ago. But one constant in our family is a dog as a member.

My wife’s heart is as big as the state she was born in, which is Texas. She’s raised two wonderful children into adults and continues to bring me along. The latter is a continuous work in progress, undoubtedly bringing up the rear.

Her covert trip across Houston to make a rescue only deepens my love for her.

Dogs accompanied our children from — literally — their first footsteps through leaving for college. I remember our son grabbing our dog’s black coarse coat, steadying himself and taking slow, cautious steps together.

And I remember how our daughter dressed our next dog in a gold-flaked cape, making him look like a four-legged version of Elvis in Las Vegas.

But the best part is how intertwined dogs are in our family history, finding a memory without our dogs in the background is nearly impossible. Like a single golden thread woven in a bolt of dark fabric, our family is only complete with a dog under the roof.

Love takes you to the highest peaks, and one day, to the lowest of valleys. But a life unlived and unloved is hardly worth living. And dogs, somehow, play an integral role in our family.

Like knowing our last chapter closed two years ago, I can’t wait to see where this new one takes us. We are again complete. Color me happy.

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Luna, an Australian Kelpie joins the Woolsey family.

Desert Town Picks New Residents

A young man wearing a protective black bandanna walks across the restaurant to take our order. My wife and I are in a once-bustling mining community in western Texas; now, a locally claimed ghost town. A quick look at the chalk on your shoes and sun blistered desert basin, and you easily extend the town the benefit of the doubt.

The waiter is polite and happy to see us come inside.

Brisket tacos served with a side of cold beer in an aluminum can are on the menu.

Life is hard on the desert – harder if you can’t come to terms with yourself and your surroundings.

The young man mentions he moved from Houston to this corner of the universe, one with fewer actual residents than parking spots at a Walmart.

I ask how he picked Terilingua for his new home.

“You don’t pick Terlingua, Terlingua picks you.”

His words, intentionally or not, resonate with confidence.

“I moved out here about a year ago,” he said. “Best decision of my life.”

Pausing, words of love for his new home flow out like a bottomless bowl of chips and salsa.

“You learn to adjust out here. Things I thought I needed back there, I don’t need out here. I’ve friends back in the city, hustling and struggling. Here, we are a community where everyone knows and helps each other. I have everything I truly need.”

He tells me life as hard as the Coronavirus is impacting local businesses, but he is learning to do with less and remains self-sufficient.

“I haven’t had to take a dime from the government,” he says.

The front door creaks open, flooding the room with blinding white. Instinctively, we look away as another couple comes inside.

 “You learn to appreciate simple things – like water,” he says. “You recapture water, use when you need – and not when you don’t.”

He tugs at his shirt.

“If you don’t need to shower each day, you don’t – and it makes a difference.”

The restaurant is quiet, and the tables spaced apart, allowing guests to dine within Coronavirus restrictions guidelines. In years past, tables and guests were elbowed to elbow both inside and out. If life in this corner of the world was hard before the arrival of the pandemic, you don’t need to look too far past the now silent businesses now representing a twisted version of modern ghosts.

“You learn to look at everything differently,” he says. “Like after you use something to take a moment and ask if there might be another way to use it afterward. You don’t just to toss things away.”

I think about his words and how he is learning – or unlearning – to adapt to his new world. The water here is regularly captured from the sky, abandoned auto parts welded into sculptures, and shards of shattered limestone become walls.

The waiter returns with brisket tacos and cold beer.

As he walks away, I can’t help but feel like he is, indeed, home.

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Learning To Play The Right Game Important

Learning to get out of my way changed everything.

I am a big believer in karma, humility and appreciate the flow of the universe. Arriving at the understanding, I am only a bit player in a much bigger story that proved a life-changing experience. Call it ‘getting religion’ or finding enlightenment, but arriving at this point in life became a gamechanger.

Youth brings a wagonful of conflicting emotions and underdeveloped instincts. Some useful, others dangerous. In our discovery, we can fall under the spell of telling ourselves there is no such thing as too much of a good thing.

But fortunately, life is rather stubborn. Bigger, stronger, and immune to the petulant demands of our youthful wants, life moves on without hesitation. The secret is to learn not to allow our selfishness to get in the way.

I remember decades ago when the markers of adulthood were seemingly defined in significant part by the accumulation of material objects. The right emblem on a car, the hot logo on a shirt, or even the overbuilt neighborhood indicated the achievement of success. Happiness was measured by playing a fancy – and expensive – a game of picture bingo.

Big house, cross off the picture. Luxury nameplate on your car, mark off another. Second-home – mark off another! Five across, and you’re a winner!

But one day, you realize this is a game of fool’s gold. And if COVID teaches us anything, it is material objects pale in comparison to one’s health. Yes, you can have four across, but if you are on a ventilator, nothing is more valuble than healthcare workers risking their lives to save yours.

At this point in my life, the world consistently demonstrates when we become too inwardly focused, a slap is coming our way. My mother used to warn, “don’t get too full of yourself; coming down is hard.” And she was right.

Years ago, my life crossed paths with a remarkable man decades a half-century my senior. I’d stop by his office periodically. Ten minutes or an hour, our conversations would wander the rich landscape of life. And regardless of how many zeros lined his bank account (many), he always focused on first being a good person.

Take care of others, take care of your family, and take care of yourself, he said.

He told me the true measure of life is what people know and think about you as you stroll the sidewalk. Are you someone they recognize as generous to others, caring for strangers, and always willing to help? Or are you someone they can only project on based on your outwardly material objects. It was then I understood he played a different game of bingo.

Since then, I’ve tried to stay out of my way and become a person of quality and good character. I openly admit I am imperfect at times come up short. But learning to play by a different game card allows me to understand my role in life better.

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Discovering My COVID-10 Humbling

I went charging into the COVID-19 stay-at-home period like a 5-year old with a tasting spoon at a Baskin-Robbins Ice Shop.

So many choices and ways to reboot my life, alter my values, ramp up my self-improvement activities. I was excited, and the world was my oyster.

Instead, I discovered what I’d call the COVID-10.

Granted, I did read several excellent books and started a new exercise routine, but somehow my version of Kryptonite, ice cream, found a way back into the freezer.

I like to consider myself self-motivated and disciplined. The sun rarely beats me up in the morning, I always return the shopping cart to the corral, and I make a list nearly every day – even weekend. Ice cream, however, melts my willpower into a puddle of goo.

It started innocently. A small scoop after a hard day of pulling weeds in the yard or maybe following an extra-long bike ride. But like all weaknesses, the erosion quickly slipped from an occasional treat to an outright psychological dependency.

Exercising when you are older is a different formula. No matter how far you ride or how long you work out, you can’t seem to outpace cheats. Sometimes I’m riding along and picture an ice cream drumstick with scrawny stick legs running a few paces behind, taunting me all the way.

“You can ride, but you can’t hide,” he says. “I’m going to get you.”

And he’s right. As the sun goes down and I’m unwinding, I hear a distant drumbeat from across the house. It begins slowly.

“Drumstick, drumstick, drumstick…” it says.

Minutes pass, but the noise returns only louder. After half an hour, I’d swear I was the troubled protagonist in Edgar Allen Poe’s classic short story, The Tell-Tale Heart.

“Drumstick, drumstick, drumstick…” the beat continues, growing louder between my ears.

I fidget in my seat, try to refocus on the pages of spy novel I’m reading. Eventually, however, I’m under the hypnotic beat and standing in the middle of the kitchen. As the freezer drawer opens, light spreads across the freeze bin, revealing a cornucopia of artic-temperature treasures. For some reason, the drumsticks seem to draw a few extra rays of light, calling me to them.

I fold.

Moments later, my book cast aside like the cellophane wrapper once protecting the ice cream, I dive in. Guilt must add several tantalizing layers of flavor because the forbidden fruit (ice cream in this case) never tastes as good as that first bite. The second isn’t too bad, either. Rarely do I remember anything beyond that point. 

I’m not alone. I’m hearing from friends about their ways of dealing with self-imposed isolation. The closing of schools, in particular, put some in a new position.

One wrote during the stay-at-home, “don’t judge my recyclables, I’m homeschooling.”

Our battle with COVID is a serious challenge. And while we need to follow medical professionals’ advice, I’m not sure covering your mouth with an ice cream cone is the preferred strategy.

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Masks May Alter Entertainment Forever

COVID-19 is infecting my perception of reality, and I fear I may never recover. 

I now live in a world where watching an old episode of the 90’s television show Friends begs me to wonder where the social distancing is. Or while enjoying the climactic scene in When Harry Met Sally, I ponder why they are not wearing masks. And finally, the opening moments for the Brady Bunch now looks remarkably normal, much like an everyday Zoom conference. 

Who thought the masked criminal Bane from Gotham City would suddenly look, eh, normal? Suddenly Batman looks surprisingly vulnerable with his exposed chin. 

If masks continue to be a needed protective element for an extended period, can we expect producers to add a CGI mask to the upcoming James Bond movie? 

Imagine Daniel Craig sauntering up to the roulette table, and the evil mastermind sits across the playing surface. They exchange the knowing the looks of predators sizing each other up. Craig lights up a cigarette and introduces himself to the players.  

“Name’s Bond, James Bond.”

“What? I can’t hear you through your mask.”

“BOND, JAMES BOND.”

“What? James Blonde? Who has a name like that?

“Bond. B. O. N. D.”“Wayne Bond you said?”

Author Ian Fleming would be spinning in his grave like the license plate of Bond’s trademark Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger. 

Imagine being in Hollywood today. How do you manage to put out a product in today’s mask-populated environment? Doing so risks dating scenes like bell bottoms, and long sideburns did for the ’70s. Imagine Thomas Magnum with his trademark mustache hidden behind a coordinated Hawaiian shirt.

Today’s network newscasts are already there. Watching a national news report this week, I noticed all the reporters were wearing protective masks. I appreciate their gesture, but I’m feeling relatively safe watching from my television at home. 

Look, I’m all in wearing a mask, but you must admit getting dressed each day is more challenging. Is my blue mask clean? Will it complement this t-shirt? So many new decisions. 

And in true American fashion, we figured out how to monetized the space for advertising or branding. Somehow it took COVID coming to the shores of the USA for someone to spot an opportunity – a place where people’s eyeballs would be focused and then use the space to drive messaging. God bless the American entrepreneur.  

Who would have thought Birdwell, the maker of generations of board shorts for surfers, would repurpose fabric into making patterned masks? And people would gladly pay top dollars to wear them?

As masks are becoming a fashion item, materials and creative designs are popping up galore. Entire companies are springing up, turning scraps of fabric into immense fortunes. Again, God bless the American entrepreneur.

As for Hollywood, they have their hands full. Imagine the scene where Goldfinger has James Bond, masked up and strapped a table, a laser encroaching closer.

“Goldfinger, I know about operation grand slam.”

“Did he say something?”

Cut to credits. 

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Father’s Day Gets No Respect

Father’s Day is the Rodney Dangerfield of holidays.

Thanksgiving gets a parade, Mardi Gras gets beads, and the Fourth of July gets fireworks.

Father’s Day gets a tie.

Maybe not so much in these COVID-19 work-from-home days, but you get the idea. A tie is tough to pair with grey sweatpants and a wrinkled white t-shirt.

Speaking as a father, becoming one continues to get heavy rotation on my greatest hits or moments in my life. From the day my son first wheeled by past me, his eyes wide open and as stoic as a sack of Rooster potatoes to my daughter proudly announcing her arrival in the delivery room. Electricity could not jolt my soul more.

Being a father is not a biological exercise. Yes, science demands male and female elements fertilize. Genetic or not, being a father is about stepping up into a role versus making a biological connection. And the job description includes love, care, and large quantities of caffeine.

“Don’t worry,” said the nurse changing our son’s first diaper. “They won’t break.”

His legs anchored in her right hand, her left hand slid a drink-sized coaster diaper below him. Her words did little to reassure me. I might as well be wrestling an angry alligator with the shallow level of confidence I carried.

But guess what? Both our kids survived me and my significant shortcomings as one posing as a responsible adult. One time my wife and I played a tennis set before we realized we left our son sleeping in his car seat on top of a green electrical transformer box.

Or when my wife spotted me down the third base line at a minor league baseball game, our daughter dangling upside down from my arm and me reaching out to catch a foul ball. I caught both the ball and hell.

My wife carriers the mom gene. She instinctively knows what to say, when to say it, and when to bring out love. She also knows when to bring down the hammer of discipline with a surgeon’s precision – swift, narrow, and tremendously effective.

Dads use two speeds – neither particularly useful. Overreact or no reaction. Our hammer is more like a horse running around in a hospital, breaking things as it figures out a solution. And I broke a lot of gurneys.

But as humbling as being a father can be, I would not trade the ride for anything. The hand-written cards, the stuffed animals, and the first attempt at cupcakes from an and Easy-Bake Oven are all moments adding deep meaning to my life.

Both our kids are now adults. And remarkably, both are well-adjusted, mature, and genuinely good people from the inside out. I would – and do – trust them with everything. Granted, most of the credit goes to their mom (May’s big holiday), but I like to think I might’ve had the tiniest bit of influence.

As for ties, both have exceptional taste. I’m sure the colors will match my t-shirt just fine.

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When In Doubt, Act Like A Dog

I am convinced dogs are indeed man’s best friend.

My friend is ill. He’s wrestling with challenges capable of melting most of us in our flip-flops. And he never complains, taking life one day and one step at a time.

Sometimes the only thing worse than not knowing is knowing.

But my friend has a dog at his side.

My friend is surrounded by family and people who would eagerly walk across burning coals to help him. Loving, kind, and unique he is. There is no forming mold to break. He is a hand-crafted one of a kind canvas of a living, breathing masterpiece. Life, love, and the drinking in of all of life’s most interesting offerings shaped his unique soul.

But no matter what, his caramel-colored friend is there to share the journey.

Dogs are remarkably intuitive. They see what can’t be seen, feel what can’t be felt, and hear what can’t be said. They are both mystical and real at the same time.

Sitting on my friend’s back porch the other night, his dog invites herself to a cushion. Her head gently drops into my friend’s lap, his hand softly receiving her gift. His thin, long fingers scratch the short hairs between her ears, his words, and attention never distracted. They’ve been doing this so long time neither notices.

Cool summer nights are rare. Like the subtle temperature difference resulting from a few extra ice cubes in your iced tea, you notice. This night Mother Nature is generous.

My friend is good – good in the sense of managing the biggest challenge in his life. He’s collected and rational, exactly like we say we would be – but also admit to ourselves highly unlikely. Confidence is borne internally, birthed from rough roads, broken loves, and repeatedly experiencing the crescendos and dead cat bounces of life.

Taking a deep breath, my friend’s dog settles in for an extended moment. Does she know what is going on in his head, the voice of distraction he hears becoming more vocal each day? Does she know from his touch where his mind wanders?

I like to believe so.

Call it what you will, but God put man and dogs together for a reason. Yes, there is the caveman theory of protection and help chase down wild game, but something other exists. Dogs own a corner in our hearts and souls like no other.

A lull arrives on the back deck, and the night sounds creeping in around us. My friend’s dog offers the slightest of movements, inviting further attention. The long thin fingers unknowingly respond to the silent, shared conversation between them. I’m alone.

When someone you love is in pain, you will do anything to help. Say jump on a flight with an hour’s notice, send them the last shirt you own, or drop off a plate of cookies. In response to the emptiness we feel, actions become our go-to solution.

But sometimes, all we need to do is follow a dog’s lead and be there.

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We Must Move From Platitudes To Progress

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I am not sure what to think or feel. I can’t.

The brutal death of George Floyd leaves me numb, stunned. As much as watching his death triggers revulsion to my core, I recognize I am not equipped to appreciate systemic racism fully. I am a white male born in the 20th century. In some ways, I am an unintentional cog in the cruel machinery perpetuating the condition of systemic racism. History proves silence is every bit as dangerous as physical actions against another.

I am from an immigrant home. Unknownst to me, my skin color would provide me with both opportunities and advantages as I chased my God-given and constitutional rights of the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. In my world, if I kept my nose down, worked hard, told the truth, and stayed out of trouble, my efforts would translate into me realizing my dreams.

Our home was wide open and loving. My mother knew she was an outsider and was always welcoming of others. And for us to treat anyone differently was not even on the radar. I never once heard an unkind word uttered about someone’s race, creed, or religion. And I thought that was the way of the world outside our home.

But I was wrong.

As an adult, I learned there was a big ugly world running below the surface. Moving around the country, I began to recognize there were hurtful judgments placed on others for unmerited reasons. And the more I learned, the more I read, the more I realized I could never fully appreciate the pain and injustice. Imagination is a poor translator of the painful reality of systemic racism. To fully understand racism or discrimination, you must be the recipient of the injustice.

I hope and pray the death of George Floyd is a watershed moment for our nation.

In the past several week’s we’ve seen a black man, Ahmaud Arbery, attacked with vicious intent while running along a street in Georgia. He died, I believe, because of his skin color and the prejudices riding shotgun in the pickup truck tailing him.

And the image of George Floyd’s death cannot be unseen.

Floyd was not in custody for a violent crime. Nor was he considered a threat to society. One does not need to connect too many dots to see a picture of systemic racism come into focus. Being black should not be a crime he paid for with his life.

America is better than this. Humanity is better than this.

We need not let this moment pass without making sure platitudes get turned into real progress.

I may not fully appreciate the pain and indignities others experience, but I know enough to listen to others and act on what I see as wrong. I am proud of the peaceful demonstrators. It is time for our society to push forward. Only then will our nation more fully realize the greatness and opportunities written into both our constitution and human DNA.

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