Dogs and Grief


We are a dog family.

I had dogs growing up as a kid. My wife and I got our first dog soon after buying our first house. His name was Wayne, but we changed it to Kane because his name was WAYNE.

Your first dog is the dog by which all other dogs are measured, and Kane set the bar high. We adopted him from the Robert Potter League for Animals in Middletown, RI, where Meg and I worked before starting dating.

Kane was a full-grown shepherd mix, about a year old when we adopted him. I remember approaching him in his cage – he cowered slightly and turned his head quickly towards my hand as I tried to clip the leash to his collar. Clearly, he could have bitten me if he wanted, but his intention was to inform, not injure – a way of stating we are not well-enough acquainted for you to approach so casually and clip a leash on me. His eyes seemed to say, “I’ve seen friends of mine leave on a leash and never come back.”

For some people, Kane’s reaction would have been a deal-breaker – an excuse to walk away or visit the friendly Beagle-mix two cages down. But I was not willing to give up on Kane. So I backed up slowly and sat down at the opposite corner of the cage, and Kane and I regarded one another like potential enemies who might one day become best friends – a future to be determined in the next few minutes.

I maintained an un-threatening posture, relaxed, head down, making eye contact only occasionally. Kane seemed a skeptic but open to negotiation. Finally, after several minutes of détente, I patted my hand gently on the cold concrete floor, gesturing for Kane to make the journey across the cell. He wagged his tail slightly – one of those “rattler” wags, where just the first few inches of the tail moves rapidly back and forth, while rest remains dormant and unsure. Then, Kane stood, lowered his head somewhat submissively, and approached slow and steady, the wag finding its way through the rest of his tail. 

He regarded me in a friendly manner when he sat, dissipated skepticism replaced with trust and hope.

This time when I went to put the leash on, Kane lowered his head and gently leaned in – and that was it. The deal was sealed. I knew that instant that Kane would be coming home with me.

Of all the dogs we have had, Kane was the most loyal. We would let him out the front door, and he would just sit or lie down on the steps – if he ever wanted to run off, he never let on. So for about 2 years, it was just Meg, Me, and Kane. We took him to Colt state park for long walks, to many-a high school baseball fields to play fetch – he bonded quickly and totally to us.

Even though he was our first, Kane knew (instinctively it seem to me) that when baby number one arrived, he would be relegated to a lower rung on the ladder, and he accepted his demotion with grace – if such a thing is possible for a dog.

He was a constant companion to Jake and Liam growing up. When our boys ventured across the street, Kane would always tag along, trotting slowly behind them, setting up watch on a corner of the neighbor’s lot – he would never intrude on the kickball or whiffle ball or basketball or football or Pokémon card trading activities. Instead, he would just stay close and observe – with an air of guardianship and responsibility.

At around 12 years of age, Kane began suffering from congestive heart failure. I remember driving him to Ocean State Veterinary Clinic several times that year, where a vet would work a needle into Kane’s chest to draw fluid from his lungs. It was miraculous how well he would respond – giving us several more months of friendship and companionship before falling ill again. We were told by the vet that this procedure would work only for so long that eventually scar tissue would form and prevent them from drawing fluid. Futility and the inevitable snuggled up to one another. We knew we were running out of time with Kane. We knew we would have to put him down. When that time came, I was 42, old enough to have experienced some loss in life – loved ones, a parent, relatives, friends, and colleagues.

The longer you stick around in life, the better acquainted you get with death. Each time death pays a visit to someone you know, you gain a little more perspective until eventually, begrudgingly, you accept that death is part of the equation. 

I’ve never felt more bereft with grief than when we had to put Kane down. I always described it as “Profound Grief” (capital P capital G) – grief that knocks you down, wrecks you, and just leaves you in a heap for some time.

We’ve had to part with two other dogs since Kane – and the grief was no less – not one scintilla. But, unfortunately, when it comes to death and dogs, the death equation does not hold up. The experience did not prepare me or soften the blow. It was still like being hit in the heart with a hammer.

So why does the family dog’s death hurt so much? What is it about our relationships with our dogs that makes their death so poignantly and consistently painful?

I think it has to do with the dynamics – the one-sidedness of the relationship. This is not to say that we don’t love our dogs – we do – but they love us more (or at least that is what registers in our brains), and they love us “regardless” – regardless of our faults, foibles, and frailties.

Over that 10 to 12 year span, we experience (over and over and over again) unconditional love and non-judgmental friendship, which (let’s face it) is so unlike the relationships we have with the people in our lives (even the ones we love the most – especially the ones we love the most).

Every one of our experiences (the good, bad, and indifferent) is processed and stored as memories. Our brain never sleeps – so all of this processing and storing is going on 24 7. This means that every single time you were greeted by your dog, tail wagging, eyes smiling, regardless of how shitty your day was, regardless of whether you ignore him or not, all those “I’m so happy to see you” moments are stored. And when it comes time to put our dogs down, the packaging containing every one of those experiences unravels, the memories spill out, and we are forced to face the loss of the one relationship in our lives that seemed pure to us.

How could this not wreck you?

Son pierced, dad OK, mom a little concerned


The first request was for a small pair of sterling silver studs. After my wife and I discussed it, she took him to Providence Place mall – he picked out a pair that had a brushed metal look. They pierced the lobe and put them in. 


Honestly, they were so small they were barely noticeable.

Three weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon came the second request. It went something like this:

“Dad, can I get a new pair of earrings?” 

“What’s wrong with the ones that you have?

“Nothing. I just want another pair.”

OK, I guess. Nothing too drastic, OK?

“Thanks, Dad. Can I borrow a few bucks?”

And then off he went – this time on his own – to a small smoke shop on Broadway. 

About an hour later, he walked through the door, sporting a pair of silver hoops and a pleased look on his face. Still understated but definitely more noticeable than the silver studs.

At the time of this writing, there have been no requests for additional piercings, but I can say with a high degree of confidence that he wants more. I know this because he spoke so spiritedly about the ear-wear and one design specifically. I listened as Jake described an elaborate gauge earring that burrowed through the soft tissue of the lobe, hugged the back of the ear, shiny, scaly, and serpentine-like before punching its way through the cartilage of the upper ear. “It was pretty cool” – “Ah-ha,” I said, one eye on him, the other over his shoulder where I saw his mom, lips pursed, head shaking sharp and short left to right.

The earring thing is a relatively new development with our 17-year-old. Until recently, the only time the subject of earrings came up was in hushed tones around the kitchen table about what to get mom for mother’s day or her birthday or for Christmas. I remember the proud smiles he and his younger brother would share when mom opened her lovely froggy or dragonfly or starfish earrings. 

Those were simpler times when earrings were just jewelry. Now I’m forced to think about earrings through the dark and edgy prism of teenage self-discovery.

I’m not too worried about this latest development, to be perfectly truthful. I see it as a relatively common and benign step towards self-expression – It’s all good, in my view. 

My wife, on the other hand, is a little more hesitant. She worries about the potential snowball effect – might ear piercing be a gateway to nipple rings and a torso of tattoos? Might we wake up one morning to a Dennis Rodman situation across our kitchen table? Although I doubt this will happen, we have an obligation to our son to put some healthy boundaries in place – mainly because teenagers can’t see life beyond the front door.

I don’t want my son setting off metal detectors at the airport or having to explain to an angry and hard-of-hearing beachcomber why his MineLab Excalibur II keeps beeping whenever he approaches Jake’s blanket.

So, a few guidelines:

  • A face should always have fewer safety pins than a cloth diaper. Better yet, no safety pins are allowed.
  • For every piercing under consideration, your child must ask himself whether or not the same piercing would look OK on mom or dad. If the answer is no, he should not proceed – Jake, you won’t be a teenager forever.
  • Always consider how your face will look when you remove the piercings – if you envision a crater-filled landscape created courtesy of a madman with a hole puncher and staple gun – then think about scaling back a bit.

I suppose that’s it for now, Jake.

Please keep these guidelines in mind next time you venture out. By the way, I like the hoops – they suit you.


Triple Jumps and parenting bumps


I took a nice long walk last night.

It was cool outside, a noticeable contrast from earlier in the day, when the weather was summer-like, hot and humid; one of those days when you actually feel the weight of the heat pressing down on you.

I spent most of my day at Brown Stadium in Providence, trying (unsuccessfully) to escape the sun while watching my oldest boy compete in the RI track and field state championships.

He had high hopes going into yesterday’s event, but ended up not performing to his own high standards.

He jumped 40 feet in the triple jump, just one half inch short of making the finals.  He leaned back just as he landed on his final attempt, instinctively putting his hand down, which is where the scorer is required to mark the jump.

After the meet I could see the disappointment in his eyes – I could feel it in my heart; a weighty and palpable sorrow.

I told him how proud I was of him and that he had a lot of good things to build on for next year.  And though no truer words have ever been spoken, the actual act of speaking them felt somewhat forced, as if the words themselves had been shoved out of my mouth by a reflex for parental decorum. And no sooner had the final syllable left my lips did I find myself wondering what effect, if any, a father’s words have on his 17 year old son – no matter how pure and heartfelt the sentiment.

At 17 my son is clearly working through his own shit. I can see it on a daily basis. And my second go-around at 17 (I will call it P17 for Parent of a 17 year old) has been almost as challenging as my first go-around (when I was actually being 17).

As a P17 there is an almost constant “contents-under pressure” need  to impart wisdom – like I am itching to step up to the plate, to be the rudder, the sail and the beacon of light all at the same time.

The P17 phase of parenting is kind of like the Olympics – it’s the triple sow cow moment with all the high stakes (your child’s future) hanging in the balance. Sure it’s stressful, but you feel pretty confident that you can nail it. You feel more than ready to dispense advice that will shed the light, ease the burdens, clear the paths and lighten the load.

But here’s the rub. That 17 year old, the one you think stands to gain the most from your knowledge, experience and wisdom, that person who you love so much it hurts, seems (quite recently so) to barely be able to stomach the sight or sound of you.  And if ever a moment existed where we actually feel “deflation” as a human emotion, it is when we as parents come to realize this.

Sharing a kind thought or dispensing advice to someone who does not even want to hear the sound of your voice is emotionally draining. I suspect this is why that moment after the track meet felt so forced and unnatural. My son hardly ever rebuffs me in a disrespectful manner (he is too good a kid to do this); – it’s more like he is tolerating me.

The parenting paradigm shifts at 17.

In general, with regard to experience, we rely on what has worked for us in the past to formulate strategies for the present. Like everything else, memories of our parenting successes are stored and hardwired in our brains.

We have memories of spoon-feeding advice to our 5 year old or our 10 year old child, and them gobbling it up, to generally positive results.  So this is what we continue to do – we continue to advise our 17 year old as if he were still that 5 year old child (because our brain is telling us this is what worked in the past).

To assume this will yield the same positive results is to assume that your 17 year old son’s brain has not evolved – that it remains in the “accept input and act on input” mode. But this is not the case at all, because that brain in your seventeen year olds skull is no longer just accepting input and applying it. Nope, that brain is trying to work a lot of shit out on its own.  In fact that 17 year old brain is busy mapping its own morality, using as input not only all that you have fed  it, but  an un-ending amount of experiences from a world that more often than not,  appears unjust and uncaring. That brain is trying to reconcile a lot of inconsistencies.  A lot of them.

Sometimes I find myself practicing what to say to my 17 year old son – rehearsing and choosing my words carefully – in hopes that this will increase the likelihood of him at least contemplating my words.  It’s like all of a sudden my son’s brain has morphed into the star wars defense system and my words are missiles to be shot down.  I am not sure when this parent child relationship turned into the cold war – but I remain hopeful that all the effort we as parents put in early-on also get stored into memory. And none of this will deter me from dispensing advice.

Sorry Jake, that’s how I roll. 🙂

Silly you


Not sure what to write about today.

I haven’t yet flipped on the television to see what transpired while I slept.

I think I can pretty much count on 3 or 4 car bombings, general unrest in the Middle East and continuing coverage of the three young women kidnapped and abused over a 10 year period. That story has legs for at least another 3 or 4 weeks and has a salivating “angry-eyed” Nancy Grace chomping at the bit.

I did go through this morning’s newspaper, its pages still damp and cool from a late-night-early morning rain.  But there’s nothing in there that I hadn’t already heard about the day before. It makes me realize how near-to-death print media is –  and with that I imagine a newspaper in a hospital bed, over-bloated with advertisements and lacking crucial topical news nutrients; it’s editors, reporters, photographers, paper boys, print press operators and any other blue or white-collar worker associated with the lifeblood of the newspaper standing around the bed – heads bowed, hands clasped, listening to the foreboding blips of  “relevance monitoring” devices, waiting for the inevitable and wondering  whether they are properly trained, prepared or skilled enough to work in the world of virtual newspapers and electronic ink.

For so many people advances in technology have outpaced the speed by which they themselves are able to change. There is little doubt that the people standing around the dying newspaper saw the writing on the wall years ago, but were unable, unwilling, or just plain overwhelmed and frozen in fear at the prospect of having to change.

The world moves so damn fast.

You spend a sizeable chunk of your life learning a skill or a trade and then advances in technology combined with changes the global socioeconomic circumstances you and your skills are suddenly deemed unmarketable. Now what? Well you have to “skill-up” to be competitive in this new world. Forget the fact that you are 50 years old, set in your ways, and not too many years ago thought you had “made it” – you thought you had gotten over the hump – metaphorically speaking  – but now when you look up you see this BIG ASS HILL, with marker flags waving in the wind, on them are words like Retrain, Retool, Back to school, New economy! and you are like “FUCK!!!!!!” (and more than a little bit tired) and then you say to your fatter, less motivated, less healthy, and more emotionally tired than you have ever been self  “I have to go up this hill?”

Silly you.

Yes you do.

Reggie Lewis, AAU, and the Sultans of Swing


I was driving home from Boston with my younger son today. We had spent the previous day in Roxbury MA at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center for and AAU basketball tournament. We had his iPod plugged in and jacked up. My son was almost fully reclined in the passenger seat, the window rolled up and the sun warming his face; he was teetering between wakefulness and sleep when the Sultans of Swing came on.

I was never a huge Dire Straits fan growing up – I mean, I liked them well enough, but I didn’t love them; but in my opinion that song comes as close to a perfect song as musically possible.  Everything about it seems perfect to me – and I am not sure why. Whenever I hear it, I am transported back in time; and I do not mean in a general sense. I mean I am transported to a very specific memory of me driving my car, turning right from Union Street on to East Main road in Portsmouth RI, on a bright sunny day listening and marveling at how good a song that was.  That was in 1979,  34 years ago – and the memory remains crystal clear for some reason. When I hear that song, I remember the warmth I felt from the sun that day; I remember greenness of the trees against the blueness of the sky as vividly as if I were experiencing them in the present.

Truth, Human Nature and the Internet


Everyone wants to be right.

We humans yearn for validation. Bestowed our moral compass by our parents, teachers, religion, origin of birth, and ultimately our experiences, we move through life; sewing affiliations with those that share our viewpoint, accept our opinions, and smile back at us assuredly.

We live comfortably unchallenged and quite purposefully so. We get our news from either Fox or MSNBC and we surf internet sites that mirror our viewpoints. We drink from a river of information filtered specifically to our tastes and preferences. We rarely stray from our comfort zone.

Sure, liberals and conservatives cross enemy lines occasionally. Every-now-and-then we liberals turn to Fox news or listen to Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck – but let’s be honest, we do so mainly to validate what we already believe, that Rush is an asshole and that Beck is a deranged mental case. I suspect that conservatives engage in similar excursions, switching from Fox News to give a listen to comrade Chris Mathews, while muttering under their breath what a Communist-Marxist-Pinko-Douche bag he is.

I used to think that free-flowing access to information would somehow lead to less polarization in society; that availability and factualness were cousins in a sense (pretty naive I know). In reality, unrestricted access to information has made us more polarized, more firmly ensconced in ideology, and (it seems to me) less willing to investigate even the possibility that we might be wrong – about anything.

It seems to me that people are more interested in having their feelings validated than searching for substantive truths that might lead them onto unfamiliar shores. And make no mistake, those who create and deliver the content take full advantage of this. Today when faced with information that is contrary to what we hold true, we have a penchant to disregard it, seeking shelter in pools of information that allow us to continue to believe what we believe, and deflect that uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance.

In a way, truth has become a cottage industry –  and we are all the worse for it.



Reflective expression

Distant as a galaxy

You bend upward like a drunken sunflower

Like a broken saint

Unhinged and uninhabitable

Your to-dos laid out in front of you

Like a stone path through an open field

Of dusted daisies, fireflies

And dancing grass blankets

You drift across the floor

Like a ghost with a plan

Diligent, determined, and oblivious to the living

You go about

In and out of rooms

Where memories blend and fade

Into hutches, drapes, and hardwood floors

Loose Pile of Rubber Bands


I am exhausted. Inside my skull there is a frazzled mix of broken synapses and buzzing noises.

I want 3 weeks of nothing. I want 3 weeks to clear my head and empty my brain – to decompress and decelerate to a normal pace, if at all possible. I want to disconnect from everything and everyone so that I can rediscover who the fuck I am – I am totally and undeniably lost. I am over connected to everything but myself.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. I need a radical shift, to jump paradigms, to poke my head through the streaming protoplasm of some parallel universe, to stick out my neck and look left, and right, and then left again and decide whether to pull the rest of myself out of the only world I have ever known and into this new place.

I need to rage against myself (screw the machine) I need to lead a coup d’état on my mind, body, and soul, to rise up and throw out the new me and retrieve the old me, to restore myself to power in a bloodless revolution. How did I get so twisted and discombobulated? It’s like someone blindfolded me, spun me around and placed me in the center of a crater on the dark side moon and said, “OK. . . READY? . . . GO!”

Inside my head, pressed up against the inside of my skull is a mess of wires, tangled and thick with no beginning or end. Basically, it’s a fucking mess in here. Like a tightly wound ball of rubber bands on steroids. I wonder what would happened if I picked at it, pulled on it just a little, would it suddenly heave, expand, and unravel all at once? What if it did? Then what?

I see myself staring inquisitively at this freshly unraveled mass of rubber bands, wondering why there was nothing at its core. What was I expecting, something pure and pulsating and glowing? But there is nothing now but a loose pile of rubber bands – Maybe the ball of rubber bands was the core? Could it be that THAT THE BALL OF RUBBER BANDS WAS THE CORE?? If I had thought this possible, I never would have curiously tugged and picked at it – I would have just walked away from it. But now I have a loose pile of rubber bands. I thought I had synapse issues before the unraveling. Now it will surely be worse – whose idea was this? NOTHING AT THE CORE? Rubber bands with no purpose, with nothing to rally around, nothing to hold them together – now what? Should I roll them up again? Should I reform this pile of rubber bands back into a ball or should I just let them lie loosely all over the place? If I choose to reconstitute this loose pile of rubber bands, will things be any different?

I am standing in the middle of a white room staring at this pile of loose rubber bands, my arms dangling uselessly by my side like clapboards, my mouth agape, my eyes wide shut, screaming at the top of my lungs and from the bottom of my heart in total silence.

I don’t have a good feeling about any of this


The fiscal cliff, the debt, the high unemployment, the low testosterone, the unrest, the religious fanaticism, the cost of a higher education, my inability to focus, the never-ending deadlines, the gridlock in government, my dog’s lymphoma, my weight gain, my memory loss, my crow’s feet, my achy back and my fluttery heart. It’s hard to be hopeful. Sure it’s always darkest before the dawn, but it just seems like it’s been dark for a long fucking time. Where’s the dawn already?

DOMA, Dogma minus the G


As the date for opening arguments on the constitutionality of the defense of marriage act (DOMA) approaches, we are seeing a flurry of newspaper articles and talk show discussions related to the case.

The defense of marriage act (DOMA) defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman for federal and inter-state recognition purposes in the United States.

Predictably, those affiliated with the Catholic church and religious-right believe DOMA is constitutional, but argue their case mainly on the basis of morality.

On the state level, RI lawmakers have introduced bills to legalize Gay marriage. This week Bishop Tobin, called on Rhode Island’s General Assembly to reject same-sex marriage in the state, stating that same-sex marriage is “immoral and unnecessary” .

Now, in my opinion, the catholic church preaching about morality is akin to the Chinese government espousing the virtues of freedom and democracy – that boat don’t float.

Many hundreds of years ago, the religious powers-that-be saw homosexual behavior as out of the norm and, without the benefit of science or understanding, labeled it as sinful, immoral, and abhorrent.

Now, fast forward to today, where, with the benefit of science (and a slightly more tolerant society) we know and understand that sexual orientation is an innate trait. Homosexuality is not a disease to be cured any more than eye color or hair color is. But still the Catholic church and religious-right refuse to acknowledge science, reason, and basic fairness and instead remain blindfully obedient to dogma.

If we woke up in “bizarro world” tomorrow, where heterosexuals were the minority, would we not fight for our right in the same manner that gays and lesbians are fighting today? I believe we would. Would we naturally continue to prefer the opposite sex? Yes, we would. Would we just accept being labeled as perverted, sinful, and immoral? God, I hope not.

I’ll end with a message and some advice to the catholic church:

You are on the wrong side of this argument. More and more people, especially young people (you know, the ones you should be trying to bring into the church!) understand that homosexuality is not a learned behavior or character flaw. They see hardworking, caring, and intelligent people who “happen to be gay”. Be open to the idea that many hundreds of years ago, when mankind did not have the benefit of science, the church mistakenly characterized homosexuality as a sin. Don’t continue to mischaracterize it, instead, embrace the science, reverse your position (no pun intended) and stick to what you’re good at, providing spiritual guidance and helping the needy and the poor.