Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sgt. Thomas Tibbs: One Year Later

Returning to me after chasing down a treat.

It's hard to believe an entire year has elapsed since my boy Thom came home to live with me and the girls. It's even harder to believe that the happy, prancing, dancing pup who races around the back yard in ecstatic figure eights when I come home from work is the same pathetic waif who could only be dragged out of his safe spot in the corner of the side yard on a leash and wouldn't even make eye contact with me for the first two weeks. Since I haven't posted an update on him since his first bath last July, I thought it might be high time to let his fans know that yes, the dog who was once afraid of his shadow is now starting to realize that this life—his wonderful, cushy dog's life—has quite a bit to offer.

Here are two points for illustration:
For an entire year, every time I have gone out to the back yard to work in the garden or pull weeds, I have invited Thomas to come with me (or more precisely, with "us," as Purrl is usually wherever I am, and Sugie will stroll out if it's mid-morning and quiet in the yard and nice weather and if it suits her highness's fancy). And for that entire year, Thomas has been content to remain curled in his corner in the side yard, out of sight but certainly not out of hearing as I usually sing loudly while I'm working in the back yard. But Sunday, miracle of miracles, as I crawled on my hands and knees between the rose bushes, pulling the tiny new shoots of plantain and Canada thistle up by the roots, I heard the now familiar and beloved sound of Thom flapping his ears. (He does this so often I had the vet check him. It's not a medical issue, just a habit.) I looked up to see him sitting, tall and content, in a sun spot a few feet away. "Tommy boy, good job! Hang out with us! We're weeding!" I said to him for at least the fiftieth time. This time, he did, nosing around until he found a sun spot in the dirt about six feet from where I was working. He stayed there for nearly an hour, listening to me sing snatches of song in between saying nice things about him.

Later that same evening, my son arrived, bringing dinner for us and a movie. Thomas had just finished his own dinner and was getting ready to trot inside the open back sliding door when he noticed the tall dark handsome man standing in the kitchen.
            "Woof," he said. (Thomas, not my son.)
            "Hey, Thomas. Woof!" said my son.
            "Wait—what?" I said, walking into the kitchen. "Did he just bark at you?"
Up until that moment, the only time I've ever heard Thomas bark is when he's sleeping.
            "Woof. Woof," Thom said again. This was not an anxious or aggressive bark, and it wasn't loud at all, just his way of saying, 'Hey, who's that in my house with my mom? Do you belong here?' I brought him in, Ezra gave him a treat, and he slept peacefully (no nightmares) on his bed for the duration of my son's visit.

And about those nightmares: He rarely has them now. Whew. Many times in the past year I have been awakened by his anxious pacing and whining after he's had a bad dream. In those times, I have calmed him by talking to him, then made myself comfortable on the couch until he can sleep again. When he wakes now, he is exuberantly happy. Morning is still absolutely his favorite time of day. Before he goes out, he flattens himself on the family room floor so I can spend a few minutes petting him and scratching behind his ears. Recently he discovered that sweet spot, just above his tail, and his eyes close in bliss when I scratch him there.

Over the past year, my mantra to Thom whenever he has withdrawn or recoiled from my touch has been this: "Don't worry, Thom. Someday you'll be a real dog. You just have to be loved enough." This is, of course, an homage to The Velveteen Rabbit. I think he's just about there. He still doesn't come up to me when I call him, but he does trot happily out of the side yard when I get home from work and call him. He now looks forward to his daily walks (instead of resisting them), and he loves riding in the back seat of the truck with the window down. Every night, I look forward to bedtime. The kitties get treats and then Thomas gets a treat... and a chew bone... and Bunny Tibbs...  and a back rub.

I am daily grateful to the volunteers at Upland Animal Shelter who never stopped believing in Thom's capacity to recover. They took a feral dog and worked with him for months until he was adoptable, and in doing so they not only gave him a chance at a great life, they also gave me a boon companion who makes me laugh and warms my heart every single day.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Sarah Koenig is helping me stay fit just by telling stories

As some of my readers already know, I seized upon the idea of becoming a writer based on an experience I had when I was given the assignment to write a short story. Upon its completion, that story was read aloud to an audience, and when that audience responded with unsolicited positive feedback ("I liked your story!"), I determined I would spend my life writing stories. My decision was helped along, I will confess, by my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Walton, who had given the writing assignment and who had read my story to my classmates. Still, the experience was profound and life changing. I mean, here I am, fifty years later, still writing and publishing stories of one sort or another.

What I gained from that event was the experience of having an audience become so wrapped up in a story (in this case, a story about a boy who builds a robot) that they are utterly swept away by it. Ok, it may be a stretch to characterize a passel of nine-year-olds as being "swept away" by anything other than a cupcake party or the last day of school, but they truly were attentive. They laughed in all the right places and were surprised by the plot twists. Mind you, I was nine. The adulation afterward at recess ("Your story was good!") went straight to my head.

Because of that event (and because I am an avid reader of fiction... and a lit major), I have known all my life that a story well told can be powerful indeed. And it is this very power that has been unleashed with the production of "Serial," a new podcast produced by radio station WBEZ in Chicago (which also produces This American Life, a popular weekly radio show on NPR). This is how the podcast is described on its website,

Serial is a podcast from the creators of This American Life, and is hosted by Sarah Koenig. Serial tells one story—a true story—over the course of an entire season. Each season, we'll follow a plot and characters wherever they take us. And we won't know what happens at the end until we get there, not long before you get there with us. Each week we bring you the next chapter in the story....

The first season of Serial (which I had greatly anticipated, having been a fan of This American Life for many years) involves a murder that was committed fifteen years ago; a teenage girl was allegedly killed by her former boyfriend. He is now serving time in prison for that crime. But aspects of the prosecution's assertions do not ring true to Koenig as she embarks upon her own exhaustive discovery of the facts surrounding the case, and so with each episode of Season One, we are made privy to the investigation step by step. Knowing that this is not fiction, that a young man's fate hangs in the balance as Koenig attempts to determine if he has been unjustly accused makes this story all the more compelling.

I've been listening to each episode on my iPod as I ride my bike to work. I heard the first episode Monday and honestly, I don't even remember the ride in, I was so riveted by the story. It's only a couple of miles from my house to the campus where I teach, but it's uphill every bit of the way. Having "Serial" to keep my mind off pushing those pedals has been a godsend.

As a reader, I'm a big fan of radio stories, as they challenge us to construct images from words and also to learn to listen attentively. Koenig's friendly, down-to-earth narration coupled with her pointed but never demanding interview skills contribute greatly to the success of this podcast as a whole. I hope it continues with a strong Season Two. I haven't even finished Season One yet, but I'm already looking forward to the next story.

If you're interested in listening to the podcast, you can download it for free from iTunes, or simply go to the website, (or click on my link) and listen on your computer.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

If only tears were words

Ever since I was a child and understood the nature of war and conflict, it has been appalling to me that humans would kill each other over ideas. The fact that a man would do violence to another man not to defend himself or others against harm, but because of a thought (God is green/the earth is square/whatever) that the other man might hold in his head just seems incredibly senseless and barbaric.

As a teacher of Journalism, I participate in conversations every day regarding what we should or should not include in our newspaper. [I want my young students to weigh the impact of every story, every idea, every sentence and yes, every word or image we present and that they realize their own responsibility in that impact. But never, ever in any of our conversations have we ever had to consider that we were in danger of being gunned down because of what we might choose to print.

It is my fervent hope that every journalist around the globe tonight will write something--anything--in response to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Consider our words a universal embrace of those who were closest to this tragedy... and a raised fist to those who perpetrated the pointless attack. The pen is mightier than any weapon. Let the resounding thrum of fingers battering keyboards by the thousands be heard in heaven tonight.