Category Archives: Family Life

Of Snow and Community

On February 11, 1983, just a few months after we had moved into our newly constructed home, the Mid-Atlantic was experiencing a snowstorm for the record books. I went out with the little snowblower we had brought with us from Minnesota and cleared a walking path to the end of our 240 foot long gravel driveway. My wife and son soon joined in with snow shovels, widening the path I had made. When we got to the street we just kept going, beginning to clear a path on our street wide enough for a single vehicle.

When our neighbors saw us, they joined in. There were only about six families living in our community at the time, as the rest of the homes were still under construction and mortgage rates were astronomical. (Note: Mortgage rates, 30-year fixed, peaked in October 1982 at 18.45%.)

We didn’t stop until we had cleared all the way to the main road.

Dusa Dog the Temporary Canine Goth Fashionista

My little blind dog, Dusa, now has staples that look like zippers across the right side of her face and on the top of her head. (Staples are the new stitches.) She also has a wound on one shoulder, on a front leg and under her mouth. She has a laceration under her right eye. For the next few weeks she will be sporting the canine version of Goth fashion with multiple piercings and a large blue collar to keep her from scratching at her wounds with her hind legs. When she is sniffing around the kitchen floor and under the dinner table she will look like a strange vacuum cleaner on four legs with a wide blue attachment.

Walking Away Didn’t Help

The attack happened quickly.

We were walking in a park where we walk almost every day. This park is a large park with several athletic fields and signs saying pets must be on leashes at all times. It is not a designated “dog park” where dogs are allowed to run freely within an enclosed space. We were walking after 9 A.M. because most of the people who walk their dogs earlier in the morning allow their dogs off the leash. This is not generally true of dog owners who walk their dogs later in the day. I would say this is more an evolved tradition rather than an indication of the law abiding nature of the different groups of dog owners.

We were walking on a sidewalk by a parking lot when a married couple we had recently met a few times drove by and pulled their car into a space in the direction we were walking. Knowing that their dog is usually off his leash, Dusa and I started walking away to avoid getting too close. It has become standard practice for us to cede the right of way to dogs who are off their leash.

Here’s what happened next. The couple let their large breed dog out of the car, accompanied by a small breed dog they had been taking care of for a friend. (In my opinion, the breed of the dogs is irrelevant.) Unprovoked, at least by anything a human would understand, the small breed dog immediately came growling and charging at Dusa. Dusa responded with growling, but since I had her leash on I was able to restrain her. This, of course, didn’t do any good because the small breed dog was not restrained.

The rest is a blur, but this is for certain: The couple’s dog, a large breed dog who usually walks placidly alongside his owners carrying a blue frisbee in his mouth, followed the small breed dog and came charging and growling straight at Dusa. The next thing I knew he had Dusa’s neck and part of her head in his mouth. It was a very violent scene.

I didn’t know what to do. Pulling on Dusa’s leash was not an option while the large dog had her in his jaws. I thought of kicking and hitting the large dog to drive it off, but decided on grabbing him by his collar from behind with my left hand, because I had Dusa’s leash in my right hand. I had to get into the fight to accomplish this. Moments after I grabbed him, his owner got there and somehow got him away from Dusa.

“I Never Thought He Was Capable of Anything Like This”

It was a matter of seconds. I looked at my trembling and defeated little blind dog and saw that she had a puncture wound on her head. I told the owners of the large dog, now at a safe distance and with their pet on a leash, that I would take Dusa home and put some antiseptic on her “breaks.” I was so shook up I couldn’t think of the word “wound.” The large dog’s owners are very nice people and they were very sincerely upset and sorry about what had just happened. The man said, “I never thought he was capable of anything like this.” This struck me, because it’s approximately the same words we have all seen many times in newspaper stories about all breeds of dogs who, out of the blue, have attacked children.

Instead of going home, I went immediately to Dusa’s vet. It was then that the full extent of the damage became known and that Dusa had her wounds cleaned and stapled together. The vet said that Dusa was actually “very lucky.” I shudder to think of what “very lucky” meant.

I puzzled over some tiny punctures on one of Dusa’s front legs and realized they could have been from the small breed dog. The small breed dog was quickly forgotten once the larger dog got involved, but could have been there.

Who Is To Blame?

So, what went wrong and who is to blame?

What went wrong is the easy part, though many might reasonably disagree. The special cause of out-of-character behavior on the part of the big dog that day was the small breed dog’s actions. The big dog, normally quiet and peaceful, followed its natural instincts as a pack animal and got drawn into the fray by the small dog. If the small dog had not charged at Dusa, I’m certain the big dog would have gotten out of the car and marched on its happy way with its cherished blue frisbee in its mouth, as usual. Its owners and I would have exchanged a few pleasantries from a distance.

Who is to blame, besides the authorities who rarely enforce leash laws? In a case such as the one I’ve described, where other dogs not on their leashes charge at your leashed dog, it’s pretty certain who is at fault: the owner of the unleashed dog(s). I’ve been told that this is the case in the eyes of the law even if your dog on its leash actually starts the fight. If your dog is off its leash, you are by definition not in control of your dog.

People have encouraged me to sue and ask if I gave the other dog owners a piece of my mind. No, I did not. I don’t feel this way, though the thought did occur to me very briefly. The owners of the other dogs involved are no different from so many others. It could just as well have been the fault of many other dog owners. They all want to see their dogs romp freely and be dogs, even where leash laws are posted. I understand this and am not previously (and possibly in the future) without sin, which is why I have tried to keep from sounding self-righteous here. Most dog owners believe their dog is not capable of seriously injuring another dog because they never have, or because of their breed characteristics, or because their dog “would probably just roll over if another dog wanted to fight.”

Did Dusa “Diss” the Little Instigator?

What about Dusa? Does she have any fault? Did she bring this on herself? Did she send out a dog vibe unrecognizable to humans that “dissed” the small breed dog who instigated the whole mess? Does the fact that Dusa is quick to respond in kind and might attempt dominance if a dog in her immediate proximity snorts, growls, breathes heavily or displays any other sign of canine aggression have anything to do with it? It might, except for one thing. I have her on a leash. I have control over her. Unless I allow it, she cannot act upon her instincts. (Okay, there’s the self-righteousness you’ve been waiting for.)

I have never seen Dusa attempt (remember the leash) to charge another dog without provocation… What? This sounds familiar? Where could you have heard this before? (Smiley face.)

Note: For another blog about Dusa see bit.ly/auc6mh

The App Sustained Wedding Photographer

Save the Date…

“How would you like to participate in the wedding?” This question was posed by the mother of the bride. Maybe because it was news to me that I was participating in the wedding and because I couldn’t think of anything else, I said, “I’ll be the photographer.” My proposal was instantly accepted. After all, I have a good camera and a few lenses. It all made sense. When you take good pictures, people compliment you with, “You must have a really good camera!”

Months went by. The “Save the Date” reminder arrived and was placed on our refrigerator door. I attended two weddings as an invited guest and keenly observed the professional wedding photographers. Then, after the passing of many more months, the formal invitation arrived. It was time to start getting ready for my participation. How hard could it be, just walking around taking pictures with a good camera?

YouTubing, Lenses and Discovering There’s An App for That…

After finding some YouTube videos on wedding photography I knew the answer. Wedding photography is very high-end because it combines several types of photography into one assignment: macro (extreme closeup shots of objects in sharp focus), portrait, candid, documentary and probably low light. There are no rain dates and timeframes are compressed. And in my case there was one other thing: This was for family and if I screwed it up there would be no sanctuary. Ever.

First thought: “This is great. I can justify buying a couple of new lenses and other stuff!” An online session with B&H Photo in New York City promptly followed.

Second thought: “Oh no! I will have to pose people!!” Macro photography wasn’t intimidating and I had plenty of experience with candid and documentary photography. But as a primarily sports, landscape and candid amateur photographer, posing people was anathema. I was actually resistant to posing people. For me, it was like breaking the rules.

I decided I would search online for good bride and groom poses and print them as thumbnail shots on a few pages that I could carry in my pocket. This would be time-consuming. But wait! I have an iPhone and there is an app for that! No kidding. It was $4.99 and I would be able to whip out my iPhone and show the bride and groom: “Okay, now we’re going to do this one.” Perfect. Also, I would be able to justify several outings to coffee shops to select and study bride and groom poses from the app in Ethiopian Yirgacheffe caffeinated coffee bliss. Really perfect.

The new lenses and other stuff arrived and I rehearsed how I would carry two cameras, additional lenses, spare batteries and miscellaneous other necessities around at the wedding. After nearly strangling myself with straps looped around my neck, it became clear that trade-offs would be necessary. If I used this, I would have to do without that. These were critical decisions. I made them.

Semi-Nude Females and A Bayonet Charge…

On the day of the wedding I arrived with the caterers and the florist at 2PM to take a few detail shots of the things that lots of people put a lot of work into, but that the bride and groom are too busy to notice on their special day.

The Art of the Wedding Table

I took macro shots of bottles of wine, goblets of colorful candies and rows of cupcakes. I took wide angle shots of artfully arranged food-laden tables.

At 3:45 I attempted and was denied entry to the bridal dressing room by a number of goodnatured but semi-nude females. Eventually I was allowed in and took the “getting ready”pictures.

The Bride Being Laced In

At this point I was actually dividing my time between the bride getting ready and the groom getting ready in another room. Knowing where to be at any given time required total attention, because “it” was happening simultaneously.

While I was taking the “getting ready” shots the ceremony location was changed. It would now be outdoors as planned, but under a pavilion. Rain was threatening. Luckily, the rain held off until well after the ceremony, but the beautiful filtered light from the overcast I thought I’d have for the ceremony was gone. The ceremony would be in the shade under the pavilion roof and the surrounding landscape background would be bright. If I didn’t do things correctly to compensate for this, all my photos of the ceremony would be underexposed.

The ceremony began on time at 5PM. The ceremony is candid and documentary photography like the “getting ready” shots, but now there is no cheating by asking anybody to “do that again.”

The Ceremony

A major challenge here is finding the best places to stand to get the needed shots. There was no center aisle, so I was circling around the sides and rear of the guests. People and objects get in the way. Someone tilting their head just a little bit one way or another can block the shot. It all worked out.

At least I wasn’t forced to stand at the back of a large dark cathedral and use a telephoto lens.

Formal Portrait of Bride and Groom

When the ceremony ended at 5:20, right on schedule, the part of the day I was most worried about began. In the 40 minutes between the end of the ceremony and the beginning of dinner, I took all the group photographs of the wedding party and family members, then the formal bride and groom portraits. At most I had 20 minutes alone with the bride and groom, in which we had to move from backdrop to backdrop and take the photos. I can see why even professional wedding photographers think, “If only I had more time.” There are so many wonderful poses and so little time. You have to be satisfied with what you can get and they better be right. Again, it all worked out.

At 6PM the bride and groom were taken away from me and hustled off to dinner and cake cutting. I followed. The ceilings in the house were white, so I was able to bounce flash off of them and get some beautiful shots.

Bride and Groom Cut the Wedding Cake

At some point after the cake cutting, everybody started to drift out to the pavilion, which had been transformed into a dance floor. Toasts were made and the bride and groom danced together for the first time as a married couple. After the toasts the serious celebrating began. I stayed to the end and probably took many more photos of the happy, celebrating people than a professional photographer would have. At some point I ran out of batteries for flash, so I changed to a very wide aperture lens and continued taking pictures without flash using available light, which included the DJ’s green and red disco-style lights.

Dancing at the Reception

This is the photographic equivalent of making a bayonet charge when you run out of ammunition. Some of these natural light photography pictures have a unique artistic appearance. Too bad it was all an accident!

A Special Aspect…

I suppose I should tell you that there was a special aspect to my one and possibly only stint as a wedding photographer. The bride’s father was a personal friend.

My friend Bill (l.) standing with me and the canoe we used to explore the St. Croix River in Minnesota back in the 70s. One night the river rose and we had to chase the canoe downstream to retrieve it. Bill, an ex-Marine officer, knocked on a total stranger's door while it was still dark and asked if we could borrow his truck. He said yes! Bill died not long after this photo was taken.

He died seven years ago, but he was very much present at the wedding in the minds of those who knew him. As someone wrote to me later, “You knew the meaning behind every shot you took.” This is true and I think it guided my focus. It was the one advantage I had over a professional.

And it’s the main reason why I agreed to be the App Sustained Wedding Photographer.

The Astronomically Low Probability That You Would Be You

Each of us is all the sums he has not yet counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.”  Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel

“Here we go again.” These are the words you should be thinking when attending a wedding. Or looking into the face of your newborn child. Or maybe even when you stare across a crowded room and lock eyes with one particular member of the opposite sex.

We are the sum of all the men and women we are descended from.

The author's great-great-grandfather, who had to survive the Civil War for there to be this author

In every generation for as far back as humans have existed, those men and women had to survive, sometimes against tremendous odds. They had to meet. The had to be available in geography and in time. They had to copulate. And someone had to sustain their offspring to maturity to keep the cycle going.

Had the soldier not survived the war. Had the trolley car not been missed. Had the college not been selected. Had the job not been offered. Had another guy asked your mother to dance first. Had “Match.com” selected different matches. Had the teenaged girl been supervised in the afternoons. Had the mother successfully avoided unwanted intercourse. Had birth control been used. Whatever might have prevented that particular man, your biological father, and that particular woman, your biological mother, from bringing together their 64+ trillion unique combinations of genes, would have resulted in there not being the you that you are.

There, but for the grace of God, go I? Not entirely true. As an old proverb says, “Breed is stronger than pasture.”

Think about your ancestors. Subtract yourself into nakedness. Do it…

Confessions from A Life Revised

I had a small business, which a big business bought, leaving me with a blank canvas (at 53), a reasonably young age. But I continued pursuing life as if I were still in business, with to-do lists, time management system and all that. It took several years to metamorphose into the new me. I was surprised at some of the things I decided to do with my time, but for the most part I have been drawn to projects that involve my creative tendencies.

Comment left by the author on Madison Woods WordPress Blog, “Blank Canvas”

I know some financially successful people, people who could retire tomorrow, who say they have no idea what they would do if they stopped working. They say this is why they continue. They are sad about it and they are not joking. They have spent their entire lives focused on their work. It’s all they know. Most importantly, although they don’t admit it, they believe their status in life is wrapped up in what they do for a living. It’s who they think are.

I try to encourage them. I tell them they will never know who they really are until they drift for a while, until they just empty their minds. I offer a metaphorical suggestion: Drop your bottom into one of those big black truck inner tubes on a warm day. Float down a lazy stream until all the thoughts that follow one after another, on the power of association, are gone. When you reach a mental dead-end you will have actually arrived at a new beginning. Now your canvas is blank.

It takes time to shed the symbols, mannerisms, “corporate speak” and attitudes acquired in the work world. It takes time to realize that deadlines are not always necessary. And it takes time to completely empty out the self-imposed and self-limiting choices anchored in your own mind.

The attitudes about what’s important and unimportant in life are the first things that need adjustment.

During my headier work days, I once referred in conversation to “the real world,” meaning the “important” world of pressure to perform and compete, of deadlines, of movers and shakers, and of travel with perks. This comment and my attitude were quickly put down by a few stay-at-home-moms and a guy who went to a regular job everyday. They wanted to know what world I thought they lived in and why I thought I lived in the “real world.”

Today, I would completely take their side. I’ve seen it from both perspectives now. People who don’t have a day job do manage to stay busy – and worthy. They take care of children and the elderly. They do all sorts of volunteer work. They create amazing pieces of writing and works of art, for the free enjoyment of others. The list goes on and on.

Here’s a clue to what’s really important in life: Observe people who are retired. They rarely talk about their past work lives. They may talk about their travels or the people they worked with, but not of the work itself or even their most worthy work accomplishments. Everybody has to work to live, so big deal. (An exception to this is military service, about which older men frequently reminisce, because they see it as something different from just making a living.)

So, what have I done with my own blank canvas? I have become a person I’m much more comfortable with than the person I have relinquished. I have done a turn as a house husband and found out how rewarding it can be. (Yes, ladies, I know I had a choice and it was not automatically expected of me. Plus, Mr. Mom gets praised for things real Moms are expected to do as a matter of course. But you’ve been keeping quiet about the many satisfactions!) I have been able to help others with medical situations (some terminal) and have been the executor of somebody’s will. I have hiked a bit on the Appalachian Trail at age 62, sleeping alone at night in a lightweight tent that fit me like a hotdog roll, and I have encountered bears at close range.

The author, happy and revised on the Appalachian Trail

I have become a competitor in the fast world of draw-from-the-holster defensive shooting sports, something I would never have imagined given my previous attitudes. It has tested me, humbled me and given me a new circle of friends. I have volunteered my photographic and video services for Boy Scouts, church, my younger son’s lacrosse teams and to help preserve a Civil War battlefield. I have become my dog’s best friend and constant companion.

Now, just so you know, there’s one more check-in-the-box I need. It’s something I saw on a postcard once in trendy little shop in Austin, Texas. Here it is: I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.

Impossible.

Dusa

“You know it’s really nice that you kept her, don’t you? A lot of people wouldn’t have.”

I hear this all the time. I’m a grown man and it makes me want to cry. It’s true. A lot of people, sadly, would not have kept her. You know what that means.

She’s not ordinary. She’s blind. Even after medications and laser surgery, the pressures from glaucoma were wracking her eyes with pain and she could hardly see with them anyway. So her beautiful amber eyes were removed two years ago and the pain went away with what was left of her sight.

When we go somewhere I guide her into the car and while we walk in the park I watch the ground ahead of her to make sure she won’t step on something sharp. I also look for mud puddles and snakes and guide her around. I slap bees away from her. I keep her from falling off steep embankments. When we come to a curb I say, “Up!” or “Down!” She knows what I mean. I am a seeing eye human.

In the beginning, after her eyes were removed, she often banged her head into things in the house. I would cringe and console her, but she would just shake it off. In an amazingly short period of time she had the house memorized, so this problem went away for the most part. When we go away for a holiday and leave her at The Perfect Pet Resort (it’s actual name), they always comment on how amazed they are that, after the first time she goes out in their fenced play area, she gets around like any other dog.

One day, not long after her eye removal surgery, she and I were walking in the park. It was autumn and the leaves were gorgeous, but she couldn’t see that. A single leaf came tumbling out of a tree and helicoptered slowly down in front of us. She tracked it perfectly in the air, pointing like a bird dog, following it until it came to a skittering, rustling halt on the sun-dried fall grass. I emailed her eye surgeon about this and got a quick reply: “You just made my day!”

Some people say the worst thing is that she can no longer see me. “That little dog really loves you.” This is what a woman sitting next to me on a bench at a lacrosse game once said, watching Dusa gently put one front paw and then the other on my knees so she could get closer to my face and simply stare into my eyes with her deepest affections. I miss that and she must, too, but we make up for it with lots of nuzzling. I think I have become more dog-like and it’s wonderful.

Sometimes when we’re walking in the park, a passerby will comment on her “blue” eyes.

Dusa's "Blue" Eyes

Usually, I smile and let it go. What they see are her fake eyes, her silicone ones. Sometimes I don’t let it go and say, “They’re not her eyes.” This is for the amusement of watching their puzzled expressions. Then I pull a laminated photo out of my wallet that shows her before her surgery, so they can see how beautiful her real eyes were.

In the winter months I cover Dusa up in her bed with a fleece blanket. I know she loves that and she looks so contented with just her head showing. When she gets up and turns around to reposition herself in the middle of the night, I cover her back up and nuzzle her.

Our bond is so strong because we really need each other. She shows her affection in countless doggy ways. She depends on me and I adore her. She will be nine years old this October. I am blessed.

The Ballerina Sister

Eighteen tiny ballerinas occupy center stage, all on their knees, heads lowered to the floor, ruffled tutus up in the air behind them. Their next movement will depict flowers blooming in spring. The recorded music tapers down and the lights dim. Amused moms, dads, brothers, sisters and grandparents hold their breath to preserve complete silence in the elementary school auditorium. One second. Two seconds. Three seconds… One tiny head, cheeks so red they appear rouged, pops up, searches quickly through the audience, then pops down again. The audience roars with laughter.

The ballerina who didn’t keep her head down is Debbie. She has brown hair, brown eyes, an impish little face – and diabetes. She will live to be 49.

She is the youngest child in her family, the one who can get away with doing things her parents would never have tolerated in her older siblings; the one who can get away with being sassy because she’s so cute.

The Ballerina Sister with our mom.

She will become a good student and play an instrument in her high school marching band. She will go away to a good university but will return to live with her parents and finish up at a local college. She will never break the parental ties, will always live nearby and will be her mom’s best friend.

She will get a job with a large utility company because she needs the healthcare benefits. She will refuse promotions because the stress of management is too much for her, but she will run every office she is ever in without receiving the pay. Her bosses will love her. She will always pay her own way, in every relationship.

She will love all holidays, especially Halloween and Valentines Day. She will love life and everything living. Animals, even cats, will do her bidding. Squirrels will dance for her. A wild goose will return to her each year. She will name the goose Gossard and it will leave the other geese and come to her when she calls its name. Older people who witness this will say the term for someone with this ability is “God’s child.”

She will marry and her only child will die shortly after birth. Her husband will get into tax trouble and money will be taken from her paychecks for backpayments. She will divorce him to keep this from happening and vow never to marry again.

Men will be attracted to her. There will always be a man. She will make no demands on them, so they will keep coming back to her. There will be a guy who once was a multi-millionaire, but when she meets him he will be a delivery courier. They will live together. He will be a loving caregiver when she gets a kidney transplant. He will die of pancreatic cancer. There will be one more man after him, the most loving, gentle and caring man imaginable. He will be there for her in her last years.

In her forties she will frequently be in and out of hospitals. Her eyesight will deteriorate. She will walk with pain. Shortly after her 49th birthday she will enter a “rehabilitation facility” and hate it. She will endure great pain and her foot will be amputated just above the toes. There will be discussion of amputating more, but she will go to a contract hospice bed in a real hospital instead.

There she will die and the nurses will spread her beautiful brown hair across her pillow.

R.I.P., Little Sis.