I was reading something about the ineffectiveness of various youth programs around the United States and was struck by a thought that rarely enters my mind: oh, t’were it we only had more fire and brimstone! Well-meaning liberals (and some conservatives surely) put their grand efforts into turning troubled and disadvantaged kids around at every corner. And they mostly fail, but that is not for lack of effort. There is such a giant stew of reasons – ranging from rap music to broken homes to lack of jobs to under-funded schools and missing parents – that something like after-school basketball just can’t make much of a difference. The kids spend a couple of hours a week in some well-planned utopia and then the other 165 in reality. And reality sucks for most of those we are trying to help.
But back in the day, see, religion had an iron grip on many kid’s minds. Yes, they were also more likely to be from two-parent homes, the union kept dad working, there was no such thing as thrash metal and Facebook, and watching too much Flintstones was what parents feared most about the effects of the media, but it was the Sunday sermon that often prevented the slide from good boy to juvenile delinquent. The real horror of burning in hell for lifting a pack of bubble gum held some sway back in those days. And while my own opinion is that it was (and is) tall tales long ago concocted by men wanting to control other men, women and children, Jesus man, it worked!
What band has the balls to reach way back and make an album 30 years hence that hearkens back to what a fella like me would call their best work. OMD did that with English Electric in a most amazing way. Really, really, spot on. I’m transported comfortably and happily.
First, I never wanted a dog. I was fully aware of how much work dogs are, how much they tie you down, how much exercise they need (that is, if you care enough about them you will make certain they get, which is one of the things that so amazes me about many so-called dog lovers who let their dog sit in the house all day long and then merely open the back door when they get home so doggy-do-nothing can amble about in the 300 square feet of outside space available to them – rant complete), I was especially fully cognizant of how much they poop, and also how much the annoying little bark machines can cost you in food, dog accouterments and vet fees. So how did this happen?
It may not come as a surprise, but I don’t even really like dogs and those same dog people are always quick to say, “That’s because you never had a dog growing up!”, as if not having a dog growing up is like not having ever ascended Mount Everest growing up. I had plenty of access to dogs because pretty much everyone else had a dog and quite honestly even that was too much dog for me.
So one night, admittedly, after a few beers – and years and years and years of friends, family, and every other dog person who felt the right, telling me that I had to have a dog and that my kids needed to grow up with a dog (lest they end up a dog-hater like me – touché) – I simply caved. I walked into the living room where the kids were watching tv and my eight-year-old daughter asked again, as she had a hundred thousand times before, “When can we get a dog?”
I remember the moment. It’s visually kind of gauzy now, like one of those wax paper photo effects of yore, and I felt my strength not only ebb but drop out of me like I’d eaten a pound of resolve laxative. I paused for a split second and then said it, “We can get a dog.”
All faces turned to me, stunned, which would have been truly comic had it not simply reinforced what I suddenly realized had come out of my mouth.
I was screwed.
I followed up with something about how it had to be a rescue dog, as I’m particularly annoyed by those who concern themselves with holding one bucket of dog genes above another. You know the Nazis did that.
And, yes, I know, suddenly I was the great champion of dogs, but I do have to make that distinction: you can heartily dislike dogs as an aggregate, and yet also not want any one of them to suffer. I don’t have any particular affinity for deer but you’ll never find me hiding in a tree (dressed like a tree) punching a hole through one’s neck with a high-powered rifle. There are plenty of people we dislike passionately, but we’d still pity them their terminal cancer diagnosis, right?
My wife was on the Google and in minutes and had all sorts of printed pictures of future dogs that they all pored over screeching, “Oh, look at that one!” “Ooh, daddy, I want this one!” “I love Scout!” “Can we get Molly?”
Note that I married into a family of serious dog people. There are more dogs than people, I think. These people would shoot one another rather than withhold a biscuit for Spunky. Family get-togethers are like trips to the humane society. Imagine the stress I was under.
Fast forward to today and we have a half black lab/half Australian shepherd (we think) female dog animal named Bindi (came with that, by the way) and here’s the mystery: I’m her alpha dog. She follows me everywhere – up the stairs, down the stairs, into this room and out of that one – into the bathroom for the love of god. She lies at my feet at any opportunity. She stares at me.
The entire family can be yelling “No, Bindi! Drop that, Bindi!” and she’ll just stand there looking up at them, and then I can walk in the room and say, “Drop it.” And the ravaged shoe is on the ground.
But why me? Does she know about my past? Is she affording me this deference because I never wanted her in the first place? Is she trying to break me as they did, but this time not from non-dog-owner to dog-owner, but from dog owner to dog lover?
Restaurants consider themselves either “kid-friendly” or “kid-tolerant”. I am dog tolerant. I am a dog tolerant alpha dog.
Yes, there are fleeting moments where I look over at her and she’s staring up at me, cocks her head every so slightly, and raises an eyebrow and, yes, it’s kind of cute. But, really, did I trade my freedom (she can’t be alone for more than about 6 hours), my money (we talked about that), and my dignity (I pick up her poop, she does not pick up mine), for kind of cute?
Apparently so. And she does sit when I tell her to sit.
A good buddy of mine suggested painting lessons recently because essentially I suck at painting. I really do. I definitely suck from most people’s point of view – t’were it you saw my so-called paintings. That’s because I’ve no training at all. Nor do I with music or sculpture. All things I do a lot.
So there sort-of begins the conversation, right? I do these things without any formal training but only, and maybe selfishly, because I really, really dig doing them. I shape heads out of clay. I paint faces on whatever surface I want to – actual canvasses, basement floors, walls, beams, sheets of already printed-on paper. I grab my guitar, play chords poorly, and sing whatever the hell I’m thinking at that moment. And I have the gall to record it, douche bag that I am.
And now don’t be surprised, but none of it is winning any awards.
I know it might be pure laziness that I don’t take the time to learn how to paint an apple in the manner that the masters have. “You must paint an apple, before you can paint a tree,” I can imagine my zen-like artist teacher telling me. But I really don’t want to paint apples. I like painting silly, ever-evolving, cartoonish faces, all the time.
I bought my first 50 lb box of clay without anyone telling me even what the hell was in the box. Clay-like stuff, I figured, rightly. And since then I’ve shaped heads – lots of them. Should I have copied the great works to learn how to sculpt? Certainly, to learn how to sculpt like the masters, but I kind of just wanted to make heads and whatever heads came out of some hours of grabbing, slapping, rolling and shaping the clay, were exactly the heads I really, really wanted to make. That’s why I bought the clay.
It’s like that horrible cliché – it’s the journey and not the destination. But in this case it’s really true. The joy is in the process, the work, and the serendipitous outcome of non-talent meeting rigor. A passionate idea evoked through the foggy lens of a cipher – just some guy messing around with notes, or colors, or clay. It ain’t great, I promise you that. It may not even be art. But it’s me, really quite unfiltered by actual teaching or maybe even talent.
But it’s all good because I don’t want to be good. I just want to do it. I’ve no designs on being an artist, but I do like to make shit up.