Author Archives: Teri

Toxic

At the park, I am putting my dog in the car after a long walk when I hear him — “Stop it,” he yells. “Sit down, I said sit! Sit, sit, sit. Knock it the hell off goddammit!” — and I turn to see the elderly man I passed half a mile ago on the trail, yanking his dog’s leash with one hand while beating him with the other.

The dog yelps and cries, cowering with each anticipated blow. I start toward them and that’s when I spot her, the man’s wife, continuing on down the trail as though nothing is happening.

“Mister, stop!” I say, waving my arms, trying to pull his attention my way. “My god, what are you doing, stop, you’re hurting your dog, please stop.” But he turns his back to me and keeps at it, his dog now upside down on the ground, and I realize I am making it worse, that now the man has to keep beating his dog to teach me a lesson, too. I take my cue from the wife. I get in my car, and I drive away.

This is also how Congress has chosen to deal with the onslaught of abuses perpetrated by this president. Whether he’s landing racist punches on Twitter or doubling-down on those attacks from the South Lawn of the White House, Republicans, who have to live in the same house with him, mosey on down the trail knowing there is nothing they can do to stop him and fearful of drawing the abuse their way.

Democrats, like me, wave their arms in the air begging him to stop until they, too, realize they’re only making the situation worse.

And meanwhile it’s the American people, the citizens on both sides of the aisle who elected these leaders, who remain left behind and upside down, taking a beating.

In his new bookThe Man They Wanted Me To Be: Toxic masculinity and a crisis of our own making, author Jared Yates Sexton explains that men like the president “are prisoners of toxic masculinity, an artificial construct whose expectancies are unattainable, thus making them exceedingly fragile and injurious to others, not to mention themselves. The illusion convinces them from an early age that men deserved to be privileged and entitled, that women and men who don’t conform to traditional standards are second-class persons, are weak and thus detestable.”

Consider how often this president uses the word “weak” to define those he deems disloyal or, worse, critical.

About Joe Biden the president said, “I think he’s the weakest mentally. And I like running against people that are weak mentally. I think Joe is the weakest up here.”

He famously said about Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer for more than a decade, “He was given a fairly long jail sentence, and he’s a weak person, and by being weak, unlike other people that you watch, he’s a weak person.”

He even uses the term to define the laws of the United States he was elected to govern, tweeting on June 22, 2018, “The U.S. has pathetically weak and ineffective Immigration Laws that the Democrats refuse to help us fix. Will speak to Mexico!”

He recently called former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, ”weak, ineffective & stupid,”
but it was far from the first time, tweeting way back on October 11, 2016, “Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty.”

After which Speaker Ryan, second in line to the presidency, went on, like the wife on the trail, to keep his mouth shut and live with him.

Weak weak weak.

In the world of Trump, there is no sin more odious than weakness, and he succeeds because, as Sexton describes in his book, “he is the personification of white American masculinity. His gruff demeanor, constant threats, boasting about his money and power, his wanton promiscuity, his propensity of blatant cruelty, and his bullying of opponents, which [is] like something out of a schoolyard socialization, are all traits we’ve come to associate with men in this country.” (p. 215)

I take a few weeks away from the park trail, and when I finally go back I note the man now carries the leash in one hand and a stick in the other. Friends offer advice.

If he beats the dog again, pull out your phone and record it, then show the police.

Walk right up, yank that stick out of his hand, and beat the living hell out of him with it! That’s what I would do.

Tell him you saw him beating his dog, that you understand his frustration, and ask if you can help! Offer him a hug.

Give him the stare-down. Make sure he knows that you know, and that you’re watching him.

In the end, my 30 year-old son is my most sensible advisor. “Do nothing,” he says. “You don’t know this man, and you are a woman alone on the trail with your dog. He is obviously full of rage, who knows about what, and you live in Kentucky where everybody has a gun. What if he shoots your dog? What if he shoots you?”

What makes an elderly man beat his dog, in daylight, in public?

What makes the President of United States denigrate members of Congress—elected by the American people—by making racist statements and saying (falsely) that they hate their country?

The answer is the same. He believes it is his right, and he knows no one has the courage to stop him.

Now tell me, what are we doing to do about it?

——–

(if you have the answer, comments are turned on)

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Free lunch ain’t free …. or, what it’s like to be a hungry kid

Last weekend I texted a high school friend to ask, “How much was our lunch in high school?” I noted that I thought it was 80 cents, or maybe it was 60, I wasn’t sure. She wrote back that she had no idea, but recalled getting a tiny salad because we thought we were fat. “I pretended that,” I replied, “but the truth was I rarely had lunch money,” adding, for levity, “Kept me skinny though!”

Levity. Because who wants to make a friend, even 40 years later, feel bad that you didn’t have money to eat?

When I read this paper’s recent editorial about school lunch programs and how free lunches aren’t free—yes, “free” lunch is logically being funded by someone, somewhere—I recalled how seldom I was able to buy lunch at school.

And then there was cheerleading camp. I was 15. I’d made the C squad (the lowest level), and we were required to attend summer camp on the grounds of our high school. My single mom had given me $20 (more than she could spare, truth be told) to cover soft drinks, snacks, and lunch. For five days.

“There was a Pizza Inn right down the street,” I said to my husband, folding The Anderson News and handing it back to him. “They had an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, and it was only something like $3.99, but I would just order a Coke, lying that I wasn’t hungry or pretending I was on a diet.” I paused. “To this day I can tell you exactly what the Pizza Inn smelled like that week, and how hard it was to joke and smile at a table full of loud, happy girls while watching them eat until they were stuffed.”

I hesitate to tell stories like this. Who cares, I think. And I still don’t want any of those girls, all these years later, to feel sorry for me. How humiliating. I survived. I lived. But that would be to ignore how isolating it feels (and distracting from school work it is) to be the kid who can’t have the same hot lunch everyone else is having. To feel the poverty you can’t control, exposed.

“It’s okay,” our kids on alternative-lunch tell us, “It’s fine,” though I imagine their thought-bubble reads: Sure, grownups-in-charge, I can make do with this nice alternative lunch sandwich while my friends have the hot food I’ve been smelling in the halls since I got here this morning, just please don’t make a big deal, don’t make this any more humiliating than it already is.

The idea of our school district applying for free lunch for all of our kids is an almost-untouchable subject. What would it say about our community, our school, our families? How embarrassing, one mother said to me, we don’t want to be one of “those” districts, to be labeled like that.

I’ve talked to Anderson County parents who say school lunch costs them $150 or $225 or $300 a month, making my little 80 cents a day (a mere $16/month) seem like pennies. How many of our families are budget-strained by costs like this? And, more importantly, how many families would never in a million years admit it if they were?

On Sunday at 11:30 am, I went to our local park by Healing Field. It was 90 degrees. I noted the splash park at the entrance where six children were playing. Six. Our new splash park that, if I recall right, cost roughly half a million dollars.

Ah, I can hear your arguments. The splash park is a whole other budget. What about personal responsibility, don’t have ‘em if you can’t afford ‘em, free lunch ain’t free and all that. We don’t want to be one of “those” districts. Labeled. Humiliated.

The fact I can’t pin down the cost of school lunches, circa 1981, is like having an ear worm. Since age about 9, I’ve obsessed over numbers. I loved the competition inherent in flash cards. When my parents divorced, I considered the $50 a month in child support they often fought over and calculated my net worth to be $12.50 a week. And boy could I right off in my head figure the cost of our groceries, with tax, before chancing a checkout line short of cash.

Humiliation sure is a hard worker.

Home from the splash park, I pull out an old photo album and, sure enough, there I am at 15, posing in the driveway of our old, white farmhouse, rail-thin and smiling in my blue and white cheerleading uniform. Pretending.

Lost in America

Photo from Politico

“The Trump era is such a whirlwind of cruelty that it can be hard to keep track.”  ~ from “The Cruelty is the Point” by Adam Serwer at The Atlantic

This week, the president kicked off his 2020 re-election bid in Orlando, Florida, telling his cheering arena of supporters, “Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage. They want to destroy you, and they want to destroy our country as we know it.”

When did we begin to believe that our political opponents are not fellow Americans, but enemies?

Two and a half years into the Trump presidency, his message is clear: any person or organization who does not wrap a cocoon of unquestioning support and loyalty around him—liberals, newspapers, TV news, the FBI, NATO, etc.—is the enemy.

I often hear people say that this is not who we are. I am here to argue that this is exactly who we are.

Let’s start with immigration. A recent investigation by the New York Times revealed that the youngest child separated from his parents at the border was four months old. “[I]t would be months before his parents saw him again. Before then, his father would be sent for psychiatric evaluation in a Texas immigration detention center because he couldn’t stop crying; his mother would be hospitalized with hypertension from stress….Now more than a year and a half old, the baby still can’t walk on his own, and has not spoken.”

When I see Congressman Andy Barr, with his adorable little girls by his side, I want to ask how he, as a father, deigns to support an administration that would do such damage to a baby, to a family already in crisis?

We have become the friends, the allies, of despots. Case in point: a United Nations investigation has concluded that the brutal murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi was both deliberate and premeditated by high level officials in the Saudi regime. Mr. Khashoggi was injected with a sedative, a plastic bag was placed over his head to suffocate him to death, and then his body was dismembered with a bone-saw and disposed of.

And our president chose to look the other way, with Sen. Maj. Leader Mitch McConnell telling reporters, “Saudi Arabia is an important ally against the Iranians, so it is a difficult problem to figure out exactly the most appropriate response.”

We have a president who continually besmirches the office he holds. On June 6, minutes before he was to take the stage to commemorate 75 years since Allied forces stormed Omaha beach, President Trump sat for an interview with FOX’s Laura Ingraham, in which he said about Speaker Pelosi and Robert Mueller, “She’s incapable of doing deals, she’s a nasty, vindictive, horrible person, the Mueller report came out, it was a disaster for them. They thought their good friend Bobby Mueller was going to give them a great report.”

How is it possible that, with the graves of thousands who lost their lives as his TV backdrop, foremost on our president’s mind were his political enemies back home, including the person second in line to the presidency and the denigration of a Vietnam veteran awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service to this country.

Eight days later, Gov. Matt Bevin tweeted, “Happy Birthday to our President…A great American and a great friend of Kentucky!”

When in our history, I would like to ask our governor, has “a great American” president—who did not serve in Vietnam, citing bone spurs that have never been proven to exist—been so arrogant, so tone-deaf, so disrespectful?

At his Orlando campaign rally, the president happily spurred on chants of, “Lock her up!” about an opponent he no longer has. But when asked if she was happy with him, one rally-goer said, “He says all of the things we’ve been wanting to say, doing the things we saw needed to be done, and he’s kept his promises. And if Congress could get their act together, he could do a lot more.” When asked what might have made him happier, one man replied, “Immigration stopped. Immigrants out. Build a wall. Other than that, I’m satisfied.”

Are you satisfied?

Do Trump supporters believe, as the the president said at his rally, that Democrats, fellow Americans, want to destroy this country?

Is this what Kentucky’s Rep. Barr, Sen. McConnell, and Gov. Bevin believe? If not, where is their leadership? Where are their statements to the contrary? Where is their courage?

Because if this is who we are, we are lost.

How liberals make chili


The week we bought our house in Lawrenceburg, I invited the neighbors I’d yet to lay eyes on for Sunday supper. Come at 5:00 or so for chili, I wrote to an unrecognizable email list. Can’t wait to meet everybody!

It was January. My husband was still working in California, so I was alone, waiting for the electrician, the Direct TV truck, and painters I’d hired online and hoped would show up. I had a bed and a couch. Now I needed chili-fixings for 20, a crockpot, a skillet, and disposable bowls and spoons, so off to Walmart and Kroger I went.

Come Sunday, the whole neighborhood showed up carrying welcome baskets. “I have to tell you,” one woman joked, “we heard you were from California, so we’ve been wondering what chili made with tofu would taste like.” We all laughed.

Four years on, when I read/hear locals who disagree with me politically call me vile and evil, or say “She can go back to California where she came from!” I wonder, who talks like this? And who in the world they are they are talking about?

I was born and raised in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Rush Limbaugh’s hometown. I remember when Rush started his radio show, the year after I graduated high school. He was opinionated, but funny. Entertaining, but not mean-spirited or caustic. Not yet anyway. That would come later, when he learned that funny and entertaining only got you so far; the big money was in being a shock-jock, in being outrageous, and in tapping into feelings of anger and resentment at the so-called elites.

It worked. According to Forbes, Rush earned $84M in 2017, making him the 11th top-earning celebrity in the world. An elite. The joke is on his audience. I can no longer decipher what Rush believes in his heart from what he throws out as red meat, strictly to boost his ratings. I no longer recognize the Rush from my hometown.

To paraphrase something Truman Capote once said of his relationship to Perry Smith, one of the killers in “In Cold Blood,” it’s like Rush and I were raised in the same house, but one of us went out the front door and one went out the back.

Maybe it is the anonymity of social media or the common, name-calling, cruelty of our current president, but this is the first time in my 54 years that I’ve heard, “go back where you came from,” and I’ve lived in a lot of places—Cape, St. Louis, Phoenix, Cedar Rapids, Minneapolis, Seattle, Minneapolis again, San Jose—moving 31 times in all.

And California tends to strike a nerve, especially in this newspaper.

Yes, California is crowded, expensive, and the traffic is terrible (though I’ve come to think of Nicholasville Road in Lexington as a close second). But contrary to the false stereotypes perpetrated by Rush and his fellow elites-who-hate-elites at Fox news, all Californians are not crazy, nor or they all liberals.

Education is a priority, and we paid for it in taxes. But this translated into our public high school paying teachers a fair wage, and it was so academically rigorous that parents sometimes tried to get their kids transferred to lower-stress schools. Imagine.

The June issue of AARP Magazine has a chart showing California’s gas tax at 54.4 cents per gallon vs. 26 cents in Kentucky. I wonder, how many teacher salaries and pensions might we fund by increasing the gas tax by a few cents?

We found the Californians we knew to be excessively kind and accepting, Republicans and Democrats alike. The guy next door, who did not care one bit for Obama and does not believe in climate change was, and remains, a great friend. Our neighbors treated us like family. We celebrated Christmas and birthdays and more, together. They showed me how to cook things like bok choy and introduced us to good wine, and we got them hooked on chicken and dumplings and gooey butter cake. A fair trade.

Halloween was such an occasion that our realtor had to disclose it and have us initial the page. She was right. People decorated like mad, they closed the streets, and it was not uncommon to have a thousand people come to your door (this is not an exaggeration) saying, “Trick or Treat!”

I was known for my chili. Every Halloween during my decade in California I made the same chili I made in St. Louis, Phoenix, Cedar Rapids, Minneapolis, and Seattle, and while the kids got candy at the door, grownups were welcomed inside for a bowl and a glass of wine.

The secret to this liberal’s chili is not tofu, which still gives me and my Lawrenceburg neighbors a good laugh. The secret is my immigrant, great-grandmother’s recipe, which includes chorizo, Italian sausage, and ground beef, and (are you sitting down?) never draining the grease. And kindness.

Taking Lucy Back

Eight years ago today, I made the decision to put Lucy to sleep. It was devastating.

Anyone who has ever had a reactive dog, a danger-zone dog, a dog you love desperately with all your heart but who attacks, without provocation, other dogs or people, will understand. Thank you to The Tahoma Literary Review for publishing this piece back in 2015.

This is Lucy’s story. And mine.

Lucy on the beach

The letter arrives on a Thursday, in a plain white envelope postmarked June 18, Oakland, California. There is no return address. There is not even my name, only the two lines of my street address pressed too hard with a black ballpoint pen. Inside I find a photograph of skin with a dark purple and green bruise the width of my hand, a bloody pink line cut hard down its center. The photograph is tucked inside a handwritten letter that begins: Hi, I just wanted you to see what your dog is capable of. She really did attack me with absolutely no provocation. I was walking on the other side of the street, not even in her direction, and she came after me at full speed.

I found Lucy three years ago. I had been checking the rescue site for so long that I keyed in on new dogs who arrived, how long others waited for homes, and knew at once which dogs had finally been adopted. “Blind Buddy found a home!” I might say, as if I knew Buddy personally. My husband refused to even look up from his newspaper when saying, yet again, “We do not need another dog.”

Yes, we had Lea, our three year-old yellow lab, but within weeks of relocating from Minnesota to California—our fifth move in ten years—we had put our 14 year-old Cocker Spaniel to sleep. And while I had gotten myself into graduate school with its routine of classes and tests and papers to write, I missed having two dogs, one young and bounding with energy, one gone deaf who needed the right mix of medications and a watchful eye. Yes, we had a dog, but our house still smelled like fresh paint, and my husband traveled too much with his new job. I started checking the local rescue, surfing, as a friend called it, doggie porn, and that’s when I found Lucy, a shepherd mix. The fluff of her shiny pearl-colored coat, a coat so white she sparkled. Her almost-white blue eyes. The giant stump of raw, pink skin where her back leg used to be. The description of “lethal white,” a term I had to research: no matter their beauty, these dogs are never welcome in the show ring; more accurately known as “double-merles,” an unwanted genetic anomaly which can result in deafness and blindness; the term “lethal white” is a misnomer, as the only thing lethal is that breeders tend to put them to sleep. The caption under her photo: Can you help me find my forever home?

“We are not getting a three-legged dog,” my husband said the next morning, on his way out the door to the airport, briefcase and black roller-bag in hand.

“I’m just going to call and see if I can meet her,” I said, shifting the screen on my laptop his direction so he could look at her picture again. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

He left. I filled out the online adoption application and left two voice messages for Lucy’s rescue rep. The next morning I woke too early and took Lea for a short run on the creek trail before calling again. Still no answer. For the rest of the day I kept the phone close while I tried, distractedly, to finish the reading for that night’s class, but instead kept hitting the refresh button to make sure Lucy’s picture had not vanished, adopted.

By four o’clock, when I finally had to leave for school, I thought about my application and felt both frantic and heavy, sodden inside, certain that someone more worthy—someone with an enormous fenced yard or a history with rescue or who had mothered a gaggle of children, none of which described me—had beaten me to her.

Then the phone rang. And I skipped class.

Lucy ignored me when we met. After stopping by to see if my back fence was tall enough and secure, the rescue rep arranged for me to bring Lea to meet Lucy at a dog park, where I could observe the two dogs together, and also with other people and dogs. Lucy seemed fine, normal, curious. A little anxious, maybe, like me. I still never left the house without a printed map pinpointing exactly where I was going and how to get home, and every time I came home I worried I’d miss my ramp labeled “Last Gas Exit for 16 Miles” and be forced to white-knuckle it over mountain roads – roads I’d never, as a lifelong Midwesterner, learned to drive. The same mountain road I’d had to navigate an hour ago to meet at this dog park. Lucy held her nose to the ground and sniffed all around like any dog in a new environment. Before long, Lea ran off to chase tennis balls with the other labs, and I noticed Lucy, even with her missing back leg, running the fence line like mad, chasing and nipping at the smaller dogs.

“Have you ever had a Shepherd before?” the rep asked. I had, I thought. When I was eleven, my single mother and I rented a farmhouse. We found King, a German shepherd, at the Humane Society, skinny and huddled at the back of his cage. We took him home. Less than a year later, when we had to move to save on rent, the new place would not take dogs. Mom took King back to the Humane Society. And even though I knew she had to—this was our pattern after all, the constant moving, the promise of dogs named King and Pepper and Andre and Princess and Candy who always, eventually, had to be returned or re-homed—even though I understood, I sulked for weeks and imagined how much better my life in this new town, and in yet another new school, would be if I had King.

The rescue rep said, “These Australian shepherds are great watch dogs, natural herders, working dogs; in fact, they will herd just about anything, even a group of little kids on a playground.” She laughed and looked back at Lucy. “She’s only a year and a half old and will need lots of exercise.”

“Can I run with her?”

“Sure,” she said. “I’d give her another month or two with long walks, to get her strength and balance back, but then absolutely.” I watched Lucy run, lopsided, and thought about the stairs in my house, the slick wood floors, my back yard, all brick, and barely wide enough for a picnic table, my neighbors with their dog on the other side of our eight foot cedar fence.

“Seriously,” the rep said, “don’t worry about the missing leg. I assure you she won’t. Once she’s completely healed she’ll get around as good as Lea. Dogs adjust to change, even traumatic change, much better than humans.”

“Do you know how she lost her leg?”

“The owners dropped her at the shelter two months ago with a mangled leg, saying they wanted to put her down. I’m guessing they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, pay for the surgery, or maybe they just decided dogs are too much work. We never know for sure.”

What kind of people discard their family dog at the shelter, while she’s bleeding and still in pain? Surely there is a special place in hell for people like this. I smiled at Lucy, at her being very much alive and also with the knowledge of how much better I was than “those kind” of people.

Later that evening, long after I’d signed the adoption papers and brought her home, Lucy anxiously sniffed and explored my house, slipping and falling on her raw stump (thunk!) every time she turned a corner or bounded off the bottom stair. Lucy explored, Lea slept. I poured my second, or maybe it was my third, glass of wine and carefully worded an email to my husband.

Those first days, I took Lucy on several short walks. I noted how striking she was in the California sunlight, with her perked ears and gleaming white fur and her gait somehow confident while thrown askew by the missing leg. I recall hearing Please Come to Boston on my iPod and playing it over and over on a loop while we walked: Please come to LA to live forever. A California life alone is just too hard to build. I thought of my mother, long dead now, and how we knew that no place we lived was our forever home. Even now, I knew that California was just another move in a lifetime of moves. Only this time, I was the grown up. This time, I never had to take a dog back.

Lucy was an unusual looking dog, even in a neighborhood full of every breed, and people who had passed me by for months without a glance suddenly crossed the street or ran down the sidewalk to catch me. To catch us. What happened to her leg, poor thing! What a good person you are to rescue her! Most shocking, even my husband was immediately enamored with Lucy when he returned from his trip.

“You sweet, sweet girl,” he said, forgetting his unpacked bags and sitting down to pet her and nuzzle her, to rub his fingers lightly, gently, over her stump. “Poor baby. Do you know you are the luckiest dog in the world?”

I watched him moon over her, more than a little relieved, and chose not to tell him how she’d already eaten my expensive, prescription reading glasses; or that she’d ripped to shreds the brand new paperbacks of Beloved and As I Lay Dying I was reading for class; or that I’d already spent $700 at the vet to diagnose her sensitive stomach and to start her on Reconcile, a medication to help settle her wired mind and to keep her from running from door to window to door, patrolling the house; or that, most importantly now, in hindsight, that she charged, barking and growling, at every man in uniform, and that she had fiercely pinned our neighbor’s golden retriever to the patio.

I blamed uniformed men; maybe Lucy had been run over by the UPS truck. I blamed the shy, sweet, golden retriever; didn’t she roll onto her back for every dog in the neighborhood?

I made lists of because: Lucy is doing this because. And I did not tell my husband how many times during that first week I tamped down my own waves of panic, how I had considered taking Lucy back to the rescue group and telling them it wasn’t working out, even as I knew I could never do it. What kind of person abandons a living being?

I said as much to my friend Kate, a social worker, who said, “People return kids, from toddlers to teenagers. I can’t tell you how many fosters go through the adoption process and then, after living with a child for months, or even a year, change their minds.” Kate made it sound common. I was better, wasn’t I, than a person who abandoned a child? Better than Lucy’s family who had abandoned her? I thought of my own father who left before my first birthday, never to be heard from again. Of my mother, who stayed.

No. I could not take Lucy back. Give her some time, I thought, and relax—maybe my being nervous is making her nervous—and give her some good love and care and a constant routine, and she will settle in.

For class, I read Joan Didon’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and was struck when I hit the sentence, “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood to read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.” So I checked out library books on dog behavior and dog training. I read Cesar Millan’s Be the Pack Leader and Cesar’s Way.

I read memoirs about dogs, but quickly learned that in every personal story about rescued dogs, the dogs are angels, lifesavers, godsends. Rescue dogs, it seems, are shackled to thankfulness. Thank you for giving me another chance at life! I remember reading the uber-popular Marley and Me where the dog destroyed every house they ever lived in but the owners would not, for any reason, give him up. The story could not help me with Lucy, but I understood deep within me why they kept Marley, and I lay in bed reading the last chapters and crying softly when they buried him, in just the perfect spot, in their yard.

I read Abigal Thomas’s A Three Dog Night, about how caring for her three rescue dogs and becoming part of their daily routine provided a lifeline when her husband suffered a traumatic brain injury and, eventually, died.

There was Caroline Knapp’s Pack of Two with her shepherd mix Lucille, which I read as a direct message for me and Lucy, especially when she says right off, “Fall in love with a dog, and in many ways you enter a new orbit, a universe that features not just new colors but new rituals, new rules, a new way of experiencing attachment.”

And I practically devoured Mark Doty’s Dog Years, where his rescued dogs provide such a salve, a quiet and playful comfort to both the dying and those left behind, even as the dogs are dying themselves. So many stories, so many difficult, and even horrific, circumstances, working out so perfectly, so beautifully.

What was I doing wrong?

Looking for clues to Lucy’s behavior, I pulled her shelter paperwork, vet records, and the adoption forms I had signed. Signed, but had not bothered to read.

Her name had been Lucky—not Lucy—and her file was marked: Animal #A580600 / San Jose Freezer, which means that she was not even given a kennel number on intake, that she had been scheduled for immediate euthanasia. However, right next to the box about the freezer, someone at the shelter had written in black pen: DO NOT PTS (put to sleep). SEE KELLY IF QUESTIONS. Followed by pages upon pages of handwritten veterinary notes before, during, and after surgery:

Very friendly!
Panting, tartar on upper molars, slight overbite.
Spay scar seen.
Fractured leg, dirty with debris, blood on leg, flushed and gently cleaned wound.
Shattered tibia, remove mid-shaft.
Morning tech noted dog chewed off Fentanyl patch. Dog is moderately pained after surgery with vocalizing. Marked swelling.
Large amount of stuffing found in stool, but blankets do not appear to have been chewed.
Fentanyl patch back in place. Still in pain. Add Tramadol.
Good appetite.
Continue drainage. Dog no longer vocalizing in pain.
Sweet dog.
Swelling and bruising resolving. Adjusting well to missing leg, balancing.
Eating well, strong, playful.
Incision has small crust. Warm compresses. Very active.
Not as excitable, but barks when new people enter room.
Minimal swelling. Incision still intact.
Still barking. Fed up with being in kennel!
Healing well. No further meds needed.
Apparently going to rescue group today. Home Again microchip in place.
Good luck, Lucky!

When we first arrived in California, I had taken Lea to obedience classes with a woman named Wendy. A few weeks into my trying to figure out Lucy, I called Wendy and I told her all of the things my husband knew: that when we had people over, we had to lock the dog in a room; that I could not walk her down the street and pass other dogs in peace, and how once, when I tried to restrain her, she had, accidentally I thought, bitten my leg; how Lucy threw her body at our fence every time she saw our neighbor in his yard; how she viciously charged our front door when anyone knocked or rang the bell or delivered a package.

And then I told Wendy my most shameful secret: that I could not control her; that I lived across the street from a park with a jungle-gym and concocted gruesome mental scenes of what could happen if she got out; that I had no idea how to mother, how to love, how to manage, this dog.

When Wendy met Lucy and me, she seemed to have all the answers. “I think she might just be leash-reactive,” she said, “and confinement-reactive. It is very common for dogs to become frustrated when they can’t get to the dog or the person they are trying to reach, and their frustration manifests itself in aggression.”

She recommended a Gentle Leader Head Collar, a special leash with a loop to fit around Lucy’s nose. “She can’t charge at anyone, or even lean in their direction, if you have her nose. That could help with her frustration. And bring treats to give her when she passes other dogs.”

Wendy also suggested I run with her, that a running gait is often easier than walking for a three-legged dog.

“We can’t run on the creek trail,” I said. “Too many people and dogs and bikes.”

“Shepherds and Border Collies need a ridiculous amount of exercise and mental engagement. Can you bicycle with her, even if it’s just back and forth down a quiet street? With you on a bike, she could run full-out and drain a lot of this pent-up energy. I’m guessing that might solve most of her issues.”

For the first time since bringing Lucy home, I settled into my love for her, felt like she was mine, that I never again needed to think, “should I have taken her back?” We left Wendy in the park, and on the drive home Lucy sat quietly in the passenger seat, eventually lying down and resting her snowy-white head on the console. “Do you love your mama?” I said, rubbing her ears, and then, “Are you a good girl? Lucy is mama’s best girl in the whole world.”

Over the next months, the next year, I stopped needing a printed map every time I left the house. Lucy stopped patrolling. We both settled down. I learned, for example, to take Lea with Lucy on walks, as it seemed that Lea’s calm, relaxed energy rubbed off on us all.

The head collar Wendy suggested worked miracles, as did riding my bike while holding Lucy’s leash as she chased me down Tait Avenue, the longest, flattest, least-busy street in our neighborhood. Though I often felt cold stares from yards and porches that contained a good measure of both curiosity and judgment. Look at that three-legged dog run! How cruel of that lady to make her three-legged dog run like that!

We still had to lock Lucy up when people came over, but we got used to the routine of it and Lucy did, too. She taught Lea to play chase and tug-of-war and snuggled on the floor with her for naps; she would turn over on her back and beg for stomach rubs, for leg-stump rubs; she would sit up on her hindquarters and bow her head, in what we called her Princess Diana Pose, and hold out her “arms” so we would massage her elbows. And most of all, when my husband was on the road, as he so often was, Lucy slept on the bottom corner of our bed, facing the door.

Then she attacked our new landscaper.

I had invited Malaina, whom I’d talked to on the phone but had not yet met, into our backyard and thought it would be a good idea to introduce her to the dogs. After all, Malaina would be spending some hours, alone, inside our fence. At first, Lucy seemed fine, walked up and sniffed her shoes, her pants, turned as if to walk away. Great! I remember thinking, but no sooner did the word come to mind than Lucy lowered her head, growled a soft growl, and clamped her jaws onto Malaina’s jeans-clad calf, ripping her head from side to side. She would not let go. I grabbed her collar with one hand and her good back leg with the other and yanked her free and threw her inside the sliding glass door. My heart pounded. Malaina stood, stunned.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe that just happened!” I said, leading her by the arm. We sat next to each other on the steps. I noted her jeans were not torn.

“I’m okay, I think,” she said, with a nervous laugh, which stopped the instant she pulled up her pant leg to see multiple scrapes and swelling and bruises already forming.

“Holy fuck,” I said, holding my hand over my chest and leaning down to inspect her wounds more closely. “I can’t believe she just did that. She did that in less than five seconds! Should we go to the hospital?”

“Just some ice,” she said, visibly shaking but trying to sound composed. “I’m a landscaper. My parents were landscapers. Trust me, I’ve been bitten by a lot of dogs.”
I got her bag filled with ice and sat outside with her.

“That was no bite,” I said. “She attacked you, she wouldn’t let go, I mean, she’s never done that before and I know it only lasted a few seconds, but … Jesus.”

Malaina put a hand on my arm and made a joke, trying, obviously, to calm me down. We took the ice bag off her leg. It looked worse. “My sister’s a nurse,” she said. “I’ll stop by her house and have her look at it. Honestly. I’ll be fine.”

I called my out-of-town husband later that night and tried to describe what happened. He said, “You probably should have introduced her on leash,” and I could tell I was not accurately conveying the look in Lucy’s eyes when I pulled her off, nor the strength of her jaw, nor the fact that I was so disturbed I’d hardly been able to look at her since it happened.

I sent Malaina a text message, apologizing again, asking if she was okay. She wrote back, “You mean other than foaming at the mouth?” followed by a smiley face. Which only made me feel worse.

The next morning, I called Wendy.

“Oh my, I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t work with people-aggressive dogs. You might be able to find somebody online.”

The first two trainers did not call me back. The third said she no longer worked with people-aggressive dogs because she’d once been badly bitten and was out of work. The next said he could get us in if he had a cancellation, but he lived more than two hours away and how could I make that, last minute?

I found no one. I finally gave up the search when I started feeling ashamed in the telling and re-telling, when I started to figure out I was in this alone.

Lucy went back to being a good dog—a good dog within her limits, that is—but because I had now seen first hand what she was capable of, I became much more on guard, much more vigilant in keeping her isolated, more on-task in keeping up her exercise routine and away from all other people and dogs.

Then came a shift. Not in Lucy, but in me.

I hired a contractor to do some work. As usual, my husband was gone. As usual, when anyone entered the house, I locked Lucy in the spare bedroom. But when I took the man upstairs to show him his repair project, Lucy started barking like mad and, this was new, slamming her body full force and repeatedly against the locked door. The man jolted, but laughed.

“Do not open that door,” I said. He shrugged. “No, really,” I said, “The dog is dangerous.”

An hour went on, with Lucy’s nonstop barking and pounding, until I finally locked myself in the bedroom with her. She calmed, but would not take her eyes off the door. When the contractor finally left, I felt relieved. Until the next morning, when I noticed my wedding rings were missing.

I called the police. I felt sick as I gave the contractor’s name and contact information, as I described what he looked like, what we had said to each other, what he had charged for the repair.

“Look,” the policeman said, when he called back that afternoon. “I can’t give you the details, but this is a very bad guy. He’s got a long record of robbery and assault and drugs, and he’s only been out of jail for three months. He can’t get caught or he goes back to jail, so I’m guessing he unloaded your stuff right off.”

The man knew his way around my house. I had reported him to the police. What if he came back, drugged and pissed off? When I did not respond the policeman said, “Ma’am, your wedding rings are gone. File your claim. Change your locks.”

That night, and for the next many nights, I made a bed for Lucy at the top of the stairs. And she knew, I swear she knew, who she was watching for.

Two more years passed without incident, and Lucy seemed more agreeable, like she was getting older and comfortable in her surroundings, though, to be honest, she seemed to do her best when I was gone. When my husband was home alone, he reported Lucy’s angelic demeanor. “As long as nobody comes to the door, she’s fine,” he would say. “Stop worrying.”

When we left town and had to use a boarding facility, the owners allowed Lucy (along with Lea) to be out in the play area with the other dogs during daycare hours, and when I picked them up—whether after two days or two weeks—I would receive “report cards” like these: Lucy made friends with Leo and Tank today! Lucy got lots of pets and love from staff! Lucy got tired after too much playtime and decided to go into the kennel on her own for a nap. Slept soundly through the night, even with one constantly howling Beagle. Lucy loves getting her bath and brush out! These reports reminded me of how kids behave when they’re away from home, away from their parents, of how my own mother would often say, “Why does everybody tell me how good you are when I’m not around?”

The day of the worst attack, it is about three o’clock when I decide to take a break from doing research to go out for an ice-cream cone. I will only be gone for a few minutes. No need to lock Lucy in the spare room.

I leave. I return home. I press the button to close the garage and that’s when I hear a woman scream. And scream and scream and scream. Like someone is killing her.
I toss my ice-cream into the kitchen sink and press the button again. The garage door eases up, and I see Lucy, her gorgeous coat gleaming in the afternoon sunlight, come running in a flash of white. Nothing registers.

How in the world did she get out? Had she followed me into the garage? Escaped when I opened the door and drove back in?

I let Lucy in. The screaming woman turns in my direction. I notice her torn pants on the back of her thigh. She starts screaming something that sounds like: Look at what your fucking dog just did! I’m going to call the police and have you locked up! You people and your dogs! I was just walking by and your fucking dog came out of nowhere and attacked me!

I apologize. I offer to take her to the hospital. I apologize some more. I try over and over again to give her my name and my address, but she will have none of it. The woman walks down the block, visibly shaking, her hand holding the back of her thigh. She climbs into a black SUV. She speeds away.

I pace back and forth in my driveway for the next what-seems-like-an-hour, phone in hand, waiting for the police to come. I call the only person I can think to call. My vet.

“Lucy just bit someone, no, just attacked someone, for absolutely no reason as she was walking down the street. She said she’s reporting it to the police. What should I do?”

The vet tells me the police may come and take the dog. The vet tells me I might want to go online and read about California’s laws, and lawsuits, regarding dog bites. The vet asks me the woman’s name, asks if Lucy “broke the skin,” asks if I think the woman is injured enough to need medical treatment.

I cannot answer a single question.

The police, to my surprise, never come. That night, with Lucy asleep on the corner of the bed, I call my husband and describe what happened. He tries to talk me down, says that if the police didn’t come, maybe it wasn’t so bad, that we will discuss it when he gets back at the end of the week. But the next morning, after a night of no sleep, I know what I have to do.

When you put a dog like Lucy to sleep, friends are kind but unable to hide their almost-joy at the dog’s sudden absence. Your neighbors are, naturally, relieved. The dog was a menace. Your husband says he loved Lucy, too, but that he kind of saw this coming and that you should be happy for the three years you had. And you understand. You do. Everyone busies themselves with telling you what a good person you were to have taken in such a dog. That you could have taken her back to the rescue group, but did not. “Lucy was so lucky,” they say.

A week later, when the plain white envelope arrives in the mail, I know immediately who it is from. I am expecting a lawsuit. I am still expecting the police. I’ve found judgments online for as little as $300,000 and as much as a million. I am hollowed out, raw, scared. I stare at the photo again, the bruise, and I re-read the letter. “The scariest part is that your dog continued to bite at me and jump on me. Had you not appeared, I do not believe she would have stopped. You seem like an extremely nice and responsible dog owner. I’m not interested in causing trouble for you, so I will let you decide how to deal with your dog. I simply want to make sure you realize what she is capable of, and that in my opinion, she cannot be trusted. Sorry to be so irate with you, but it was very upsetting. Thank you for your concern. You seem like a great lady. Keep an eye on that dog!”

Her penmanship is clear, except for the signature, which is purposefully scribbled. I think I make out the first name as either Jane or Joan, and the last name appears to end in e-r-l. In the end it only takes about twenty minutes to find her name, address, and phone number, where she and her husband work, and to zero in on her house with Google Earth. The house is a sprawling mansion. The woman is on the board of the local art gallery. Her husband is British, and a lawyer.

I call.

When she picks up, I say, “Hello. Ma’am? I’m the lady with the dog,” and it’s like she’s been waiting for my call. She tells me she’s been getting a lot of pressure to contact the police or animal control but has refused. I tell her again how sorry I am.

“I put Lucy to sleep the next day,” I say.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I really am. I’m sure you loved her. But I knew you would do the right thing. I had a feeling. I used to have a Border Collie who chased people and nipped at them, so I understand, I really do. I used to make all kinds of excuses for his behavior.” She pauses. I start to cry. She says, “I’m sorry for your loss. I know it’s hard.”

I did not tell the woman about the day I put Lucy to sleep. How I waited all morning for the vet to call with a time. How the vet explained she was required by California law to amputate Lucy’s head and freeze it—again, the freezer—for ten days in the event the woman contracted rabies. How I sat on the floor with Animal #A580600 marked three years ago for the San Jose Freezer, massaging her elbows while she bowed her head in her Princess Diana Pose, and I sobbed. How I buried my face behind her ears and apologized, over and over, into her soft fur for failing her. How, when I got her leash out, Lucy bounced with excitement, not knowing this was our last walk. How I handed over her leash and rushed out the vet’s door, abandoning her at last, saying I could not stay, that I could not bear to watch my girl be put to death.

There is a saying that we keep our old friends to remind us who we were, and that we make new friends because we see, in them, who we want to be. I believe our animals come to us in much the same way. That they come to us when we are lost, when we begin the search for our next selves. When I think back on King and Pepper and Andre and Princess and Candy, the best friends of my childhood, I see the joyful arrivals – and yes, heartbreaking departures – of the dogs who listened to the new kid, of the living, loving, beings who naturally lessened the strain of every new place, of every first day at a new school.

I believe it is no accident that Lucy—abandoned, with her injury and her isolating, protective temperment—arrived as a totem of transition for my new California life. How else do you explain the little yellow puppy I will bring home in August, for my birthday, who was born the week Lucy died?

I go to my bookshelf, turn to the last pages of Dog Years, and read, “I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.” I put the book back.

How odd to feel it is only Mark Doty, a writer I will never meet, and Jane or Joan, a woman I will never see again, who best understand the chasm of my grief. The complexity of my fear and adoration. The safety I felt. My luck. The fierceness of a grown schoolgirl’s love for her dog.

Men who impregnate women don’t face any consequences in the new abortion laws

I’m at the Washington Post today with a story about the new anti-choice laws and fathers — specifically my father. As always, thanks for reading. And considering.

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As Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed Alabama’s draconian anti-abortion bill into law, I combed over the horrifying details about how doctors who performed an abortion could receive up to 99 years in prison, read that there would be no exceptions for rape or incest, and learned that women and girls, no matter their age, would be required to carry a fetus to term. No exceptions.

Who’s missing? The men. Fathers.

Click here to continue reading.

Thank you, men!

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The Kentucky House Floor, January 2017

May 22, 2019 Edition

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Let’s face it, ladies. It’s time we say a big, old thank you to men.

In recent weeks, a number of male-dominated state legislatures have passed bills regulating a woman’s right to end a pregnancy: Kentucky, Utah, Mississippi, Ohio, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, and Alabama.

In a 25-6 vote in Alabama, 25 men passed a bill that would give doctors who perform an abortion 99 years, or life, in prison. And if you’re a girl or woman who’s been the victim of rape or incest, too bad, no exceptions, no matter if you’re 12 or 25.

The men have spoken, and you will carry that fetus—your rapist’s, your father’s, your uncle’s—to term, and by golly you’ll be thankful they made you do it.

This is what we’ve expected all along, is it not? Consider the language we use: She wanted it. She asked for it. She went and got herself pregnant. She came up pregnant.

Note the mysterious absence of men in these scenarios. Huh. Surely an oversight.

Back in Jan. 2017, I spent a Saturday in the Kentucky House gallery listening to (mostly) elderly men on the House floor sharing long, meandering, personal stories of their wives’ and mothers’ pregnancies and childbirth, quoting both related, and often glaringly unrelated, biblical passages. This, following the declaration by Sen. President Robert Stivers. “One had a choice early on to make a decision to conceive or not,” he stated. “Once conception starts, another life is involved, and the legislature has the ability to determine how that life proceeds.”

By “one” he means the woman, right? That once a woman has decided to conceive—Decided? Wait, does he not know how conception works?—she loses her rights and the state legislature takes over? Well, shoot fire. Let’s all stand up and say thank goodness for Sen. Stivers, because if there is anyone women want making decisions about their bodies and their lives, it is the predominantly male (107 to 31) Kentucky state legislature!

I’m reminded of that Neil Sedaka song from the 1970s.

Bad (ba-a-ad) blood (blo-o-od)
The woman was born to lie.
Makes promises she can’t keep
With the wink on an eye.

Bad (ba-a-ad) blood (blo-o-od)
The bitch is in her smile.
The lie is on her lips
Such an evil child.

Now, lest you think we women have it made here in the Commonwealth, look out, because the great state of Texas is giving us a run for our money. There are 139 men vs. 42 women in the Texas legislature and, like Alabama, there are no exceptions for rape or incest, but there is a staggering added bonus: State Rep. Tony Tinderholt has introduced a bill in which doctors and nurses, along with women seeking abortion care, would face murder charges. And guess what you get with a murder charge in Texas? The death penalty.

Of course, none of this comes as a surprise, certainly not to me. Men here in Kentucky often ask my husband things like, “You let her travel all by herself?” and, wink-wink, “You help her write all those articles, don’t you?”

I’m 53 years old, but by gosh, I think these fellas might be onto something. I mean, if a woman can’t manage to travel by herself or string together 700 words for the newspaper, surely we can’t trust her with the big stuff, like medical decisions, am I right?

So thank you, men. Truly. A great, big, hearty thank you for never letting us forget who’s in really charge.

And thank you especially to the proud men of the Kentucky, Utah, Mississippi, Ohio, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, and Alabama state legislatures, men who continually argue that stricter gun laws won’t stop people from getting guns while insisting that stiff abortion laws will miraculously stop women from ending unwanted pregnancies.

You guys rock.