Home is Where You Hang Out

Our governor says we must “stay at home.” I can do that, happily. Just the other evening, at the end of one of those perfect early-spring days, I relaxed on my patio. As I savored my view of the Okanogan River in its ceaseless, quiet flow, I became aware of a raucous party at the small park a quarter-mile downriver. The park hugs the river where it bends south, so I can clearly see activity there. A dozen-or-so people were clustered around the gazebo, definitely not social-distancing. 

Some forty years ago, I attended the dedication of this tiny park. It’d been the vision of the late Loretta Nansen, a determined civic activist, who conquered U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resistance to a park on top of their flood dike.  Her persuasive abilities convinced a local doctor, whose hobby was carpentry, to build the gazebo. The park was thoughtfully landscaped with trees, benches, and native vegetation along the engineered riverbank. Just one block off Main Street, “Pioneer Park” was destined to be downtown’s beauty spot, a place for respite and refreshment.

Army Corps at work in Pioneer Park. The gazebo (barely visible above the cloud of dust) survived.

Things did not turn out as Loretta envisioned. Many years later, the city removed the maturing trees to make the park less inviting to the homeless. I was still scratching my head over that one when the Army Corps thundered in last summer with heavy equipment, shoring up the dike with massive boulders. The native vegetation (aka wildlife habitat) disappeared. A botanist with the Corps promised me that willows will come up amidst the boulders, but I have yet to see any sign of them. Much of the grass, where people walked, was destroyed, too.

Still, people hang out there. Stay at home? I’m guessing most at the gazebo that evening were homeless. After volunteering at a homeless shelter over the winter, “homeless” is no longer a generic label. Now I know names and faces: Mac and Abby and Regina and George. I know some of their stories, some of their ambitions. What I don’t know is where they are now. The shelter closed at the end of February as the weather warmed and volunteer energy had diminished to barely burning embers. I didn’t spot anyone I recognized among the party-goers.

I admit that if the shelter had kept operating, I would not have been able to continue. My task was to sit in a tiny office, knee-to-knee with the guests, recording their background information and spending an hour in chit-chat to make sure everyone was “dry and sober.” Not a safe environment for this 75-year-old in the midst of a pandemic.

In the wall-to-wall news coverage of Covid-19, the peril to the homeless is getting scant attention. Vox reported the first known Coronavirus death of a homeless person occurred in California’s Silicon Valley, adding “The homeless population’s lack of stable shelter, access to proper hygiene, and basic food supplies makes them a particularly vulnerable group …” 

In the recent $8.3 billion bill passed by Congress, there were no funds specifically allotted to homelessness. What of the trillions yet to come? Where in all that money for airline, hotel and cruise industries will we find space for the homeless? Everybody has to be somewhere, even when there’s no home to “stay at.”

Things That Go Bump in the Night

There’s nothing like a loud THHH-WUMP! in the dark hours of early morning to remind one of the old Scottish children’s prayer: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.” Awakened by the crashing boom outside my bedroom window, I next heard what sounded like roller skates being tossed about in a clothes dryer. Or could it have been ghoulies, ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties rattling their chains?

My heat pump AFTER I shoveled off the snow, leaving a coating of ice

Curling into a fetal ball in my nice warm bed, I knew what had happened. A roofalanche! Translation: our sudden rise in temperature had begun to melt the heavy load of snow on my metal roof, causing the snow to slide off, landing on my heat pump. “Nothing stops a Trane!” declares the manufacturer’s marketing slogan. A cute play on words until I remembered horrific stories of trains being pounded and trapped by avalanches: from the Wellington disaster of 1910 in Washington state, when an avalanche swept two trains into a canyon, taking ninety-six lives, to as recently as last February, when two Amtrak trains had to back-“trak” because of avalanches in the Sierra Nevada range.

Avalanche training during my two-and-a-half-year residency at Holden Village (annual average snowfall 270 inches) made me deeply respectful of this potentially deadly force of nature. Besides avalanches that occasionally stop just short of the village’s back door, it’s where I learned the term “roofalanche.” Snow sliding from the two- and three-story roofs in the village is a more present menace than bears or cougar who roam the area. Yellow safety tape marks off roofalanche landing areas near buildings, warning pedestrians to tread widely.

Yellow safety tape would not have helped my heat pump. As light dawned, I donned my boots to examine the catastrophe. I called the service company and pointed the phone toward the heat pump. Even though it was buried in snow, the clanging was clearly audible.

“Yup, you’ve got ice in there,” came the diagnosis. The woman on the other end told me how to shut down the heat pump and switch to “emergency heat.” I’d never had a heat pump until this house and still don’t understand how it works. [Note to readers: Do not feel obliged to explain. It’ll only bring on symptoms of MEGO––My Eyes Glaze Over.] She assured me that some people run their furnaces all winter in emergency mode.

That was comforting and I was comfortable for about twenty-four hours, until the furnace stopped. It was Saturday morning and I was darned if I was going to pay an extra charge for a weekend service call. I used a space heater to warm just one room at a time. It’s a small house and, after all, we were experiencing a warming trend following sub-zero temperatures.

Thus I spent the weekend at a cozy fifty-five degrees indoors, counting my blessings: blessed by three or more layers of clothing, blessed by blankets warmed in the clothes dryer, blessed that the power hadn’t gone out so I could run the space heater and clothes dryer, blessed that this event came AFTER sub-zero temperatures, and blessed that—except for an occasional bump in the night—my house is comfortable all year round.

Final blessing: the technician arrived immediately after I called, first thing Monday morning. Thus richly blessed, I felt downright grateful as I paid the bill, especially since he gave me a “senior discount.”

All Things Being Equal, They Are Not

The handsome, young, African American man—a guest at the homeless shelter where I volunteer—sure knew his Bible. He could not only quote passages but cite verse, chapter and book.

“Matthew 19, verse 21,” he proclaimed with rapid-fire delivery. “Jesus said ‘sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.’ Are you willing to do that? Will you sell your house and give the money to the poor?”

We knew who he was talking to. Of the eight people gathered in the shelter’s intake room, only two of us—the volunteers—actually had a home. His question was in earnest, as if my soul survival depended on my willingness to follow Jesus’s instructions literally. I could have responded that if I sold my home, I’d have nowhere to cook the dinner he and the others were eating. I could have offered all kinds of practical responses, but I could see no good emerging from such a discussion. It would only have emphasized the divide between the haves and the have-nots in that small room.

I haven’t seen him in the weeks since, but his challenge has stayed with me, probably not in the way he intended. Of course it’s made me more conscious of how blessed I am to have a home. More than that, it’s deepened my awareness of how significant our homes become as we age. More than a sheltering abode, our home serves as the archive of our life, a storehouse of memories, the very edifice representing who we are. For many, having to move from the home of a lifetime can feel like giving up on life itself.

And then there’s the practical matter. A home is a financial asset. We look upon our homes as an investment. When we sell, we expect to make money. A friend who is moving into a retirement community is conflicted over whether to redecorate her new apartment, which doesn’t suit her taste, which is exquisite. It’s one of those facilities where you buy in and are promised (for a price) all the services you need as you age—memory care, nursing, etc. She can afford a new decor, but because she’s a shrewd money manager, she’s not sure she wants to spend that money. When she dies, the apartment reverts to the facility. Her estate—that is, her children—will not benefit one cent from any improvements she makes. Should she spend the money for her own enjoyment now, or put up with an environment that doesn’t suit her so her children can benefit later?

The young man from the shelter would advise her to forget the whole thing and give the money to the poor. Would that it were that simple. Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, co-founder with brother Walt of the Disney Company, is featured in an article entitled “Embarrassment of Riches” in the January 6 New Yorker magazine. She’s a member of “Patriotic Millionaires,” an organization of very rich people who lobby for higher taxes for themselves and all ultra wealthy.

When she was younger, Disney told the interviewer, she considered giving all her wealth away. Instead she has given money incrementally, and because money begets money, she says she has ended up giving away more money than she initially had. She scoffs at billionaires such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who have pledged to donate at least half their fortunes to philanthropic causes.

“I’ve given away much more than fifty per cent of my net worth, and I don’t intend to stop,” Disney told the New Yorker. “And, frankly, if you’re a billionaire and only want to give away half of your fortune, something is wrong with you.”

When it comes to philanthropy, how much is enough? The Bible says a tithe, or ten percent, should do it. When my mother was alive and living on her retirement savings, she continued to pay a ten percent offering to her church and other causes.

“Mom,” I’d say, “you already paid ten percent when you earned that money. You don’t have to pay another tithe now.” She’d give me that exasperated, you-really-don’t-get-it look that she learned from me when I was a teenager. When Mom died, my sister and I inherited the bulk of her estate. You’d better believe we both passed ten percent on to charity. The tithe that keeps on giving.

This morning I made a quick trip to the homeless shelter. With temperatures and wind chill plummeting to minus-fourteen, we’re organizing extended shelter time and breakfast for the guests this week. The shelter, which is run entirely by volunteers, usually operates only until seven a.m. Guests must fend for themselves from then until it re-opens at six p.m. After a quick meeting and short drive in a cold, cold car, I was especially grateful to walk back into my warm, warm home.

I settled down with coffee and the January 13 New Yorker to read an article about inequality. Our nation’s founders may have declared that we’re all created equal, but it doesn’t take long before life sorts us into folks who have more and less—some have more money, others less; some have more opportunities, others less talent; some inherit healthier genes, others an unhealthy environment, etc., etc. Throughout history, people have tried to resolve this issue of inequality. A core problem identified by the New Yorker is what philosophers call “the problem of expensive tastes:” what seems like a necessity to one person looks like a luxury to another.

My reading was interrupted by a ruckus on the ice-covered river that flows past my home. A bald eagle had landed and was tussling with something on the ice. At first I thought it was trying to get hold of a fish. Then I realized, to my horror, it was on top of a duck, tearing at the duck with its beak and talons. Not just any duck. The renegade domestic duck, an American Pekin, that I’d watched all summer and worried about since winter arrived. The mallards and golden eye have all flown away to open water. This duck apparently had its wings clipped before it escaped from the farm.

The eagle ferociously pecked and pulled on the duck. Then, unbelievably, the duck shrugged off the raptor and started waddling across the ice, a little shaky, slipping and sliding, but making determined progress. The eagle attempted a few fly-bys but for whatever reason stopped short of attacking the duck again. Certainly this was a contest between two unequals. Yet the duck apparently won the battle, if not the war, through sheer determination. It disappeared into the bushes on the opposite bank, either to quietly heal or quietly die. It has not reappeared all afternoon.

On my side of the river, I’m in my home, warm and comfortable. But not too comfortable.

Equals in battle?

May Long-Lost Resolutions R.I.P.

Like it or not, New Year’s is an apt time for appearances by ghosts of resolutions past. Resolutions long forgotten. One of mine showed up just after midnight when the neighborhood celebratory fireworks had faded into black silence.

Because I’m easily subject to suggestibility, I suspect her appearance was prompted by a short story I’d listened to earlier in the evening. In Simon Rich’s “Birthday Party,” a man celebrating his thirtieth birthday is visited by his former selves—at ages fifteen, seven, and two. The fifteen-year-old is especially distraught that the thirty-year-old has failed to live up to his dreams, has basically “sold out.” My visiting ghost was equally disgusted as she unearthed a resolution by my fifteen-year-old self.

“You swore you’d never get old,” she reminded me. I tried laughing it off.

“One really doesn’t have the option,” I answered.

“I’m not talking about chronological age,” she retorted. “You resolved always to be up-to-date, cool, with it, kickass …”

“Careful,” I interrupted. “I didn’t even know that word at age fifteen and I don’t use it now.”

“My point exactly.”

She had me. At age fifteen, I’d regarded my parents and grandparents with great affection, but I would NEVER be like them. I would always be in style, wear the latest clothes, listen to popular music, drive hot cars (once I got my license). Now I’m older than even my grandparents were when I was fifteen, and I’m duplicating their playbook.

“Just look at you,” the specter continued, her eyes scanning my at-home outfit from the feet up: heavy socks inside dog-chewed Crocs, faded corduroy pants, turtleneck pullover, well-worn cardigan …

“… and no makeup!” she moaned.

“I’ll put on some lipstick if I go out,” I said.

“Go out? GO OUT?! Just how many New Year’s Eve invitations did you turn down?”

“Um, one … or two … maybe three.”

“So you could do what?”

“Stay home, read a book, listen to Glen Gould play Bach …”

Her heavy sigh echoed the past. My mother hated my fifteen-year-old sighs—expressions of adolescent exasperation mixed with a disdain that, had I stated it verbally, would’ve grounded me for at least a month, maybe the rest of my life.

The ghost renewed her attack.

“We’ve established you no longer know how to party. What do you know about popular culture?” I shrugged my indifference.

“Just as an example, who is Taylor Swift?”

I made a wild guess: “Is he a singer?”

“Like, SHE’S only been named ‘Artist of the Decade!’”

“I must’ve missed that decade.”

“Your eleven-year-old car says as much. What ever happened to your preference for sporty convertibles? You’re driving a Dodge sedan!”

“Yeah, well, it’s safe and comfortable and PAID for!” I shot back.

Defeated, she shook her head. As she faded from sight, I heard her tearful groan, “What has become of me?”

It’s true I lost that teen-age resolve, but maybe I gained something along the way. A modicum of wisdom?

At-home comfort fashion from the feet up

Small Town Christmas Vignettes

A FRIEND and I were lunching on Joyful Thai food at the Okanogan Grange, because that is what one does on Mondays in the Okanogan.

Joyful Thai, the only Thai restaurant in the valley, keeps its overhead to a minimum by going to its customers, serving from various venues throughout the week: Mondays at the Okanogan Grange, Wednesdays at the Oroville Grange, and Fridays at the Tonasket Community Cultural Center. Despite an impressive selection of entrees, sides, and soups, Joyful Thai does not offer desserts. To celebrate the season, my friend brought a paper plate filled with Christmas cookies—the labor intensive kind that are cut out in Christmasy shapes and frosted.

“My neighbor makes them, and they’re delicious. I look forward to them every year,” said the friend. As we nibbled, a couple more friends stopped by to chat. My friend offered them a cookie, announcing that the neighbor (She-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless) made them.

One of the women raised an eyebrow and responded: “No, she didn’t. My daughter-in-law made them. She’s been making Christmas cookies for SWSRN for years.”

There was a moment of silence followed by howls of laughter. As Shakespeare noted, truth will out. After we’d collected ourselves, I realized the truth in this case was probably more complex than we’d initially assumed. I didn’t think there was fraud involved.

“I know your neighbor pretty well,” I said to my friend, “and I know she would never claim to have made the cookies when she didn’t. But I also suspect that if you wanted to assume she made them, well, she wouldn’t disabuse you of that notion.”

My friend agreed that was probably so. It could be SWSRN has been getting the last laugh for years. I reached for a candy cane-shaped cookie with pink frosting. Its provenance may have been dubious, but it was delicious.

THERE’S NO such thing as six degrees of separation in the Okanogan Valley. At most there may be two. If you meet someone for the first time, it will take only a few minutes to determine at least one person you mutually know. Not only that, it’s highly likely that the mutual person is related to one or the other of you. I learned right away when I moved here forty years ago never to say anything insulting about anyone. I wasn’t trying to be saintly; it’s just that family connections run deep. It seems most folks are second or third cousins, sharing a great- or great-great-grandparent some generations back.

When a friend held a holiday open house last week, I invited another friend to go with me.

“But I don’t know her,” said my invitee. “Are you sure she won’t mind?”

I assured her the friend would be delighted, and she was. We’d settled onto the sofa, cups of holiday punch in hand, when the inevitable game of finding that mutual connection got underway. It was predictably short. The hostess gave her mother’s name, which my friend immediately recognized because they’d worked on various projects together.

Other names started dropping as they established more mutual acquaintances. Ultimately one name prompted a gentleman, who’d been listening quietly, to prove my second point, with a twist.

“She was my first wife,” he said. Perhaps in some circles that would have led to an embarrassed pause, but no one had said anything mean and we just sailed on. It’s the Okanogan version of Linked In.

SHORTLY BEFORE Christmas, I looked out my my kitchen window into the dark, winter evening to see red and blue flashing lights reflected in the snow.

“Santa Claus!” I thought and rushed out the front door as though I were five, not seventy-five. I wanted to make sure that the children across the street were alerted. Santa was about to ride past in his brilliantly lighted sleigh, led by a police car. For decades, volunteers have maintained this tradition, touring various neighborhoods as a lead-up to Christmas, allowing children to catch a glimpse of the saint of their dreams.

As I started toward the neighbor’s house, I noticed the police car was still a block away and not moving forward. Because of its flashing lights, I couldn’t tell whether the sleigh was behind it. Maybe Santa was pausing to greet children in that block. On the other hand, maybe it was just a police car responding to a call. Domestic violence? A burglary?

In my neighborhood, police investigations do not happen with the regularity of Santa’s annual visit, but they do happen. I didn’t want to become some kind of false Christmas prophet, knocking on the neighbors’ door, announcing Santa’s imminent arrival, only to disappoint. I stepped carefully into the street, avoiding patches of ice, trying to see through the dark, wondering with childlike uncertainty, “Is this Santa coming? Is this really Santa?”

At last the police car began to inch forward. As I mounted the stairs to the neighbors’ front door, I finally could see the blazing lights of the sleigh and began to hear Santa’s amplified “Ho! Ho! Ho!” So, apparently, did the neighbors. The front door opened wide to reveal a first-grader, ready for bed and barefooted. His mom quickly wrapped him in a blanket and carried him to the top of the stairs. The brilliance of the sleigh lighted the little boy’s face as he gazed at the spectacle with a mixture of disbelief and awe.

I ran back down the steps, collected candy canes from one of Santa’s helpers, and delivered them to the boy and his mom. As the sleigh disappeared up the hill and into the night, I thought about the boy’s disbelief and awe.

This can’t be happening. This IS happening. Isn’t that pretty much the Christmas story?


No Ducking the Issue

Ducks of a different feather swim together

On the first Sunday of Advent, the children in my church traditionally begin reconstructing a Nativity scene. During the worship service each December Sunday, miniature replicas of Christmas story participants are tenderly placed at the stable. On this first Sunday, forest inhabitants are to be situated among the trees outside the stable. Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, etc., will arrive in due time.

Since there were few children in attendance (presumably off with their families for the Thanksgiving weekend),  adults were encouraged to take their place.

“There are no ducks,” I murmured as I looked through the inventory of forest creatures. I explained I’m worried about a particular duck who has been swimming in the river by my house. Later, one of the men set a teeny duck on the piano as I was playing.

It was a mallard. I’m not worried about mallards. My concern is over an oddball duck who showed up last summer. Though I’m not an authority on water fowl, I believe this duck is an American Pekin. It’s a domestic duck, bred to be eaten. It apparently escaped from someone’s farm last summer and joined up with the local flock of mallards. The Pekin, much larger and mostly white, looks nothing like the mallards, yet they don’t seem to mind its company. The Pekin never leaves this stretch of river, which is why I’m worried.

“He can fly away.” A visitor who claimed to know something about ducks tried to reassure me when I asked what would happen when the river freezes. Her claim was countered by our popular oracle, Google. Because the Pekins are bred to be fat, they don’t have the wing strength to get their tubby bodies off the ground.

My worries had heightened the morning of Dec. 1, as temperatures dipped and large sheets of ice floated down the river. The mallards were gone. The Pekin remained, dodging the ice floes. I interrupted my morning routine every few minutes to watch. Suddenly, I spotted a single mallard swimming close to the Pekin. Was the mallard trying to encourage the Pekin to follow the current downriver, to join the others in the open Columbia? I wondered what E.B. White—who wrote magical stories of pigs, and spiders, and trumpeter swans—might imagine these two ducks to be saying. Was I witnessing the inevitable, icy end to a friendship that could not endure the unforgiving elements?

The mallard floated away. I watched the Pekin walk, all alone, across the ice to a quiet backwater by the river bank. I’d never before seen this duck out of the water. By afternoon, the temperature had risen, a light snow was falling on an open river, and the mallards returned along with my favorite winter waterfowl, the goldeneye. The Pekin swam among them as if nothing special had happened.

Surely I can find better things to fret about this winter than a wayward duck. Offhand, though, I can’t think of anything.

A Collar By Any Other Name

“It looks like ca-ca,” said the vet. I was astonished. I’m accustomed to hearing my dogs’ medical professional use four-syllable Latin phrases to diagnose various ailments and conditions. The more Latin, the higher the fee is likely to be.

“Ca-ca” is not Latin. I later looked it up in a contemporary slang dictionary to make sure that I understood—though I was pretty certain from the veterinarian’s tone of voice.

Daphne, my eleven-year-old black lab mix, is recovering from her second surgery this year. Right away you’re probably asking if it’s humane to subject an aging dog to intrusive medical procedures. But Daphne is lively and happy. She has a healthy heart and lungs; she easily keeps up with her four-year-old kennel mate, Tawny.

It’s just that Daphne’s body has been producing strange lumps and bumps of late. Last summer, when she had a cancerous toe amputated, she recovered quickly and fully. This time it was a lump on the same rear leg. I didn’t quite catch the vet’s original Latin diagnosis, but the lump—which proved not to be cancer—was infected and had to be removed. No big deal, except the surgical site on the lower leg didn’t provide a lot of extra skin to hold the sutures.

While the post-surgical wound may look like “ca-ca” at this juncture, the vet assures me it is healing, albeit much slower than we’d like. It’s vital that Daphne not fuss with the bandage or lick the wound, as dogs are wont to do. Thus proper terminology is called for, especially in the realm of assistive technology—devices that help people (and dogs) work around their challenges.

Daphne is not, I repeat NOT, wearing a so-called “cone of shame.” She’s wearing what is properly referred to as an “E-collar,” short for Elizabethan collar, so named because it resembles those weird ruffled collars that the first Queen Elizabeth favored. Really? Did Elizabeth have a predilection for licking herself?!

The sobriquet “cone of shame” emanated from the movie “Up,” which otherwise was a fine bit of entertainment. I may seem overly sensitive about this, but we don’t make fun of people using assistive technology, such as wheel chairs and hearing aids. Thus the Youtube video, “Funny Cone of Shame Compilation,” is not funny. Well, maybe a little funny. Like the dog lying on its back sucking spaghetti swirled within its cone, or the little dog that figured out how to twirl a ball around inside the cone, then catch it in her mouth.

Daphne has adjusted well to the cone—er, collar—despite bumping into things on a regular basis. I had to remove the glass-topped coffee table from the living room. Mostly she bumps into me. An affectionate dog, she simply wants to nuzzle.  But that sharp-edged cone slamming into my thigh hurts me more than it hurts her. I’m hoping my bruises won’t start looking like “ca-ca.”

Daphne with e-collar
No shame, no pain, especially with a chew toy for comfort

Aging With My Dog

WALL-TO-WALL DOGS: Tawny (left) at peace  means Daphne (right) and I are too

The old formula that dogs age seven years for every human year has been pretty well debunked. Still, if you follow that formula, my black lab mix, Daphne, and I appear to be in the same age range. She’s 11, I’m 75. You do the math.

Friday, when we visited the vet, I was surprised that Daphne was avoiding contact despite the doctor’s friendly advances.

“Well, she’s never been real friendly toward me,” shrugged the vet, “and she’s getting older. Dog behavior gets more exaggerated as they age. Like people. Haven’t you noticed that as we get …”

“Let’s not go there,” I interrupted before she could say the word “older.”

I don’t know which I struggle with more, my dogs’ mortality or my own. One of my favorite authors, Gary Paulson, has already published the book that I’d like to have written: “My Life in Dog Years.” It’s a memoir, each chapter devoted to a dog that was special in Paulson’s life. I can pretty much tell the story of my own life through the escapades of the dogs I’ve shared it with. In my adult years, there were Mephistopheles (a chihuahua called “Mephi” for short), Pandora, Christy, Becky, Sadie I, Hobo (who was with us for less than twenty-four hours but remains part of my soul), Sadie II, Ben, and now, Daphne and her junior kennel mate, Tawny. I learned valuable lessons from each, and each eventually broke my heart.

Even a shattered heart always has room for another dog. You accept that new puppy or that mongrel stray, knowing that you’re going to go through the cycle all over again: training, sharing, loving, learning, grieving. A few years ago, some friends who were aging refused to get another dog when their beloved springer spaniel died. They dearly missed having a dog, but they were in their eighties. They figured they had such a short life span remaining, it would be unfair to the dog. I fear I could never be that selfless. I must always have a dog, and I’m reconciling myself to the probability that it won’t always be Daphne.

Last summer, one of Daphne’s toes was amputated due to skin cancer, which was fully excised. Now we await lab results for samples taken from a suspicious growth on her leg. The results will take at least a week, said the vet.

“I’m confident it’s not cancer,” I said. The vet looked at me quizzically.

“When Daphne had the cancerous toe,” I explained, “before it was diagnosed and removed, Tawny, the younger dog became uncharacteristically aggressive toward Daphne. His attacks were so outrageous I began looking for a new home for him. Once the cancer was gone, Tawny was back to his playful relationship with the older dog.”

“Isn’t that weird,” responded the vet.

Weird, yes. But this time around, Tawny hasn’t displayed an ounce of aggression toward Daphne. I’m going with Tawny’s prognosis. It makes waiting for lab results less anxiety producing.

Songs of Creation

The neighbors’ tiny dog has been making his anguish audible all morning. He’s just a few ounces of fluff, thus his human providers compensated for his size by naming him “Bear.” His vocal extremities do give him a large presence.

I went to the keyboard to determine his pitch and range. He starts on a high D, more than two octaves above middle C, and slides chromatically in a downward glissando, landing on G. The glissando is repeated rhythmically, followed by a beat or two of rest. Occasionally, for variety, he soars upward to a trill on high-high G. Very occasionally, the Bear decides to be a dog after all, and gives out a few yips, a lyric soprano version of a bigger dog’s bark.

I suspect Bear is exercising his vocal cords because he’s been left alone, and he doesn’t like it. Then, as I listen more deeply, I hear not just a lonely dog. I hear him singing in unison with all Creation. I hear the deep songs of sorrow from the endangered orcas’ calls, the distant yodel of migrating cranes, the angry screech of eagles, the caustic commentary of crows, the sassy yap of coyote, the howling wolf.

Ah, yes. Wolves. Sad news this week from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The agency had to cancel a series of fourteen statewide meetings about wolf management because officials feared violence. Not from the wolves, mind you, but from both wolf-partisans and wolf-haters. Threats on Facebook were emanating from both sides.

Instead of meetings, the wildlife agency invites the public to respond to an online survey. That’s not good. If we humans cannot come together face-to-face, listen and learn from each other, agree to disagree in pursuit of solutions, we’re doomed. In my worst nightmares, that’s how I see climate change progressing: instead of humanity joining in harmony to rescue this extraordinary planet, we’ll engage in tribal fights, clinging to our delusional beliefs about what we own and/or have a right to.

Sunday, Sept. 1, is the Global Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. It’s the first day of the Season of Creation, observed worldwide by both Catholics and Protestants, ending Oct. 4 on St. Francis of Assisi Day. Christians are asked to pray and celebrate with Creation, focus on the story of Earth, and commit to a ministry of healing Earth. I particularly like this prayer from Australia:

God, our Creator, help us to love
all creatures as kin,
all animals as partners on Earth,
all birds as messengers of praise,
all minute beings as expressions of your mysterious design
and all frogs as voices of hope. 

While I was writing, my neighbors apparently returned home. Bear has been silent. I don’t often find frogs on the riverbank, but maybe in this moment of silence I’ll be able to hear the frog’s voice of hope. Just a mere peep, but worth listening for.

animal-butterfly-close-up-45863 (1)
Photo by pexels.com

The Very Least We Owe

“The medium is the message.” That was the late Marshall McLuhan’s theory—a big deal when I was studying communications in the 1960s. I thought then that I understood what he was suggesting, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until the past couple of weeks.

McLuhan argued that technological innovations disrupt and shape society. Prime example: the printing press that led to the Reformation. Would McLuhan ever have a field day studying social media!

I’m not a frequent flyer on Facebook. Yet even from my remote corner of the world I’m aware that a vast number of people view it as their primary news source, that information is manipulated, data are breached, and a five billion dollar fine is chump change for Mark Zuckerberg. It all seemed so remote until it hit home.

I’d written what I thought was a mild but straight-forward endorsement of a school board candidate, sent it to the newspaper as a letter to the editor, and posted it on Facebook. Not one person has commented on the letter in the newspaper. The Facebook post generated a flurry of responses, both thumbs up and heated criticism, including a debate over whether Facebook is an appropriate place for campaign dialogue.

Appropriate or not, Facebook is the place where people show up. It’s doggone hard to get a crowd at informational meetings or voters’ forums.

Ordinarily, school board races are ho-hum; we feel fortunate if we get a single, viable candidate for each slot. The excitement over this one stems from a twice-failed bond issue for a proposed new middle school. The district tried holding open houses to explain the need. People turned out by the handful. The majority of voters approved the proposal, 1,306 to1,132, but that failed to meet the state-mandated sixty percent approval. It appears our small community is just as polarized as the rest of the nation.

How do we get back to agreeing with each other for the greater good? Social media?

Megan Phelps-Roper is a former member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, known for its hate speech. In a TED talk, she asks and answers the question, “If you’re raised to hate, can you reverse it?” Her inspiration for leaving the church, a courageous act that made her a pariah to her family, came from conversations on Twitter. Not the medium I’d expect for theological conversion.

Essayist Jia Tolentino is quoted in the New York Times arguing that posting on Facebook or Twitter “makes communication about morality very easy but makes actual moral living very hard.”

Social psychologist Robb Willer says we can bridge the political divide by listening to and understanding the values that are most important to the other side. He says liberals are most likely to value equality and fairness while conservatives place their highest value on loyalty and patriotism. Well, shoot. I can embrace all those values. Can’t you?

“Empathy and respect,” are the bridge, says Willer. “If you think about it, it’s the very least we owe our fellow citizens.”

His solution is doable, if not always easy. And, no. There’s no app for that. There’s only the willing heart.