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dog distance (Washintonian)

Our three dogs are playful – perhaps a bit unruly. It was the man knocked off balance by them and awkwardly splayed out on the sidewalk during one during a powerful winter snowstorm who used the phrase “untrained”. Or something slightly stronger.
They are a happy group, friendly and cooperative, but they get very excited about new people and dogs. Actually, wildly and embarrassingly excited.
So walking three dogs is challenging enough, especially when they seem to feel they are a lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce and the park is a cocktail reception at the Republican National Convention. They are all over it. I can almost see them reaching for their business cards.
And other well-meaning dog owners like to chat about the trio’s breeding (two quirky and quick small mottled tan-and-white mutts and a luggish over-sized British black lab) or their own dog’s engaging personality or habits — though believe me, like new parents, dog owners often see the most common and tedious achievements as wonderfully unique.
I’m not opposed to dog networking, but those encounters often don’t turn out well. Legs get peed, leashes cross (we once met another foursome and within seconds six leashes looked like something a spider on crack created) and sometimes a tussle begins, usually involving our big, powerful black lab who can take exception to quick move or specific dog butt scent, I guess. And all of this takes place while the plastic bags brimming with dog poop swing wildly swing around us.
I don’t personally feel they need more friends and there are days when I’m just not in the mood — when I’m feeling crappy or in a hurry or both. But where I live in Takoma Park, the only thing more popular than dog socialization these days (we’ve been directed to dog parks, offered dog play dates and once had a woman suggest one of our dogs “sleep over”) are flack seed and the comeback of the Birkenstock.
Sometimes I create a wide arc away from oncoming dogs and when asked the inevitable “are they friendly” query, somberly shake my head and pull my three back firmly, as if I can barely keep them under control and they have just viciously murdered a flock of sheep.
The other dog owners usually walk on, though often seemingly offended – like a parent whose child didn’t get accepted at Brown. And a surprising number aren’t satisfied and nudge closer, apparently thinking they can be converted
One man just ignored me and came closer, muttering something about “that just can’t be”. He was the same guy who was one morning earnestly talking to his garbage can. Another keeps his bull dog off leash and lets him inch slowly over, which every dog owner knows spells trouble.
One difficult morning recently after I smiled and herded my dogs around a tree and past a woman dog walker, she stood staring at us long after we passed, hands on her hips, looking as if I’d just farted in her car or stolen her purse. I didn’t like her and was even less enthusiast about her dog, who seemed like the sort of pointy over-achiever type.
“They don’t really want to be friendly (and, get this) with unknown dogs,” I said, surprised at both the soaring level of my irritation and sinking level of my maturity.
“They’re dogs,” she responded, her voice rising. “They are supposed to be friendly.”
“And maybe you are ruining yours, “ I responded, hinting vaguely that she was spoiling her dog or trying excessively to build his self esteem.
My dogs glanced back, seeming to say “Man, you guys are crazy.”

oh baby (washington post)

This essay first appeared in the Washington Post


We must resolve to do one thing this year that will serve us all well. Let’s end New Years as we know it.

It’s a cheesy celebration with much bad ritual– a holiday when too many of us make an unseemly, excessive effort to enjoy ourselves,  like a bunch of six-year-olds straining to laugh the 23rd time at that odd noise from a hand and an armpit. It is probably the date on which the word “party” sadly became a verb.

Don’t you remember? Fearing we’ll miss something eventful, we stare into the television with other wilting, crimson-eyed partygoers. Women plot avoidance of the midnight kiss by lonely Glenn from accounting with the calculator-quick hands.  Our stomachs rage. Someone picks up the remote control as midnight nears…

Images flash by: A fading, croaking rock star asks the crowd  if it’s “ready to rock,” and the crowd, a generation younger, sounds uncertain. Stomach acid comes to life in a advertising animation A woman in a sequined dress too-short for her advanced years gets her too-tight face and smeary lips too close to the camera. Kids bouncing around in a drug-induced frenzy are exalted high above by a smiling, clueless Dick Clark. Click. More ads. Click. Blurry “before” diet photos. Click. Diet meals. Click. Diet drinks. Click. Diet pills. Click. Diet desserts.

These many reminders of our failings would be enough, but this holiday is full of bad ideas.

            To begin with, what’s with this old man and kid in diapers.? They aren’t at all endearing the way Santa or the Easter Bunny are. What happens to the old man? Does he die? How happy is that? And where are this baby’s parents? And what are the two of them doing together.

Then there is all the unsubstantiated summing up by the media with “best of” the year and “most fascinating” and “hottest” lists. Does anyone really think these people are  really fascinating.

And there is too much football. Even a fanatic will admit that they’ve seen more than enough before the last bowl games begin, like my old friend Phil, who was frightened out of the recliner one year by an overdose that in his mind transformed an outside linebacker into a Fantasia-like hippo/ballerina. And for a whilenNow the bowl games awkwardly carry the names of their corporate sponsors – more of this holiday’s crass commercialism.

            In the morning you have the parades to look forward to.  The mummers work all year on gaudy ostrich-feathered costumes costing thousands then unabashedly march through town to “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers” strummed on the banjo. Last year, “strutter” numbers were waning, so one group, hoping to buttress their force, featured “wench dresses” and long braids. And you’re just trying to recuperate.

And there are all those parade hosts who don’t really want to be there or say this cornball stuff about terrible lip-sinked performances, floats and equestrian teams that  no one — even kids — really care much about anymore.


And of course new years is also the time for resolutions. And we all know that doesn’t that work out well.

Finally as it draws to a close, every year we have the same image….  A disheveled mother in a hospital gown holding this poor little new years baby who just wants to adjust slowly to the outside world and spend some time with his mom. Mom has allowed five camera crews, seven reporters and four photographers into her room, fearing otherwise she’ll become “the mother of the new years’ baby who, in a shocking break with tradition, refused to have a press conference.”

So, how about a fresh start. First, how about moving it all to March, where it could break up that a long, solemn stretch before spring. Let’s get better bands, and take everyone away who is drunk. Let’s not sum things up or resolve anything. Lets not drink too much or feel obliged to kiss anyone or have too good of a time or watch any television spectacles. And let’s allow that one poor baby to get away from the old coot and let the other poor baby and his mom to get some sleep.










            After I asked the question, I quickly sensed this was the sort of thing that would land me cleanly in the midst of family folklore, the source of those humorous anecdotes that are told at weddings and Thanksgiving dinners and live on through generations. It would get laughs for my wife at dinner parties and for my kids among their teen friends. I could imagine Matt Lauer saying in his news segment segue “So, Ann, did you hear about the man in Maryland who….”

All I said was this:  “Has anyone seen my glasses?”

However, I was wearing a pair. And had a pair on the top of my head. And a pair stuck in the collar of my shirt. Honestly. And, there was a pair in the drawer immediately to my right, though thankfully no witnesses knew that.

But, sadly, there was no ridicule. No jokes. No barbs. There were simply smirks and silence, like the reaction you might get from people surprised by that guy outside a mattress store dressed as a huge lobster or by child with his finger up his nose.  They weren’t flabbergasted; just taken aback momentarily and mildly amused. This is perhaps why.

I have lost:

  • 23 pairs of glasses, I believe, mostly ill-fitting and odd-looking drug store models, purchased because I lost too many prescribed pairs.
  • 7 watches (I once had two on my wrist, which was almost as troubling as wearing three pairs of glasses)
  • 4 cell phones
  • 6 golf clubs and 323 golf balls (during 15 rounds).
  • An endless string of parked cars (once resulting in a garage search for nearly an hour in college with a woman I was trying to impress and her parents).
  • An endless string of grocery shopping carts – in the store (in fact, vehicles of any sort – from skateboards and bikes as a child to airplanes at airport gates as an adult).
  • A critical set of briefing papers for a state senator ready to begin his much-publicized committee meeting.
  • The hand-written combination to a sturdy lock that was securing six bikes on a hot day just before a show the riders had gathered to see that was some distance away.
  • The map (prior to cell phones and GPS devices) to a wedding we played a role in at a little rural church.
  • Receipts for many, many things.
  • Notes from a difficult-to-get interview for article that was due the next day to a prestigious publication.
  • IKEA furniture parts ad nauseam in the midst of assembly
  • Several dogs
  • My aging mother
  • My children
  • A classroom of students

(In my defense, those in the last four items survived and deserved part of the blame, I think, having wandered away or, in my mother’s case, having thoughtlessly taken off her sweater  — a color I was looking for in the busy mall.)

It’s been with me as long as I recall. I seem to remember losing items like my favorite blankets, toys and articles of clothing often as a child, (once, my pants, or so the story goes) and spending large portions of my day searching for things.

All through school I lost things – books and homework and pencils. I still average a pen every 3 days at work.  I often lost my parents in crowded places. I once lost four friends on the top of a mountain during a hike, and began yelling for them frantically only to find they were standing conspicuously on a rock to my left, laughing, and memorizing the event for many future re-telling.

Others have adapted. My mother used to tie and pin things to me – mittens and wallets and keys and even, once, humiliatingly, a permission slip for a school event.  My wife makes allowances, verbal reminders, notes, things laid out conspicuously and sometimes by grabbing my hands and placing simple items in them, like a small-city mayor at a press conference handing over the keys to the city.

I know I am not alone. We have lost-and-found bins for people like us, and humbling loudspeaker announcements about ownerless car keys and children. We slow things down or hold things up. I once saw a young child sitting facing backward in a grocery cart turn to a busy cashier and say – “she’ll never find it,” as her mother searched frantically for her credit card in an overflowing purse. An unhappy crowd in a long-delayed plane I was on subtly booed when a passenger announced he’d left his computer in the terminal and the crew let him race to get it.

I had a roommate who suffered similarly – and we were always looking for things in a small college dorm room, and sometimes, conveniently, found the thing the other was searching for. He once lost his keys four times in a day, the final time throwing them out inadvertently. I saw a guy stomping down the street, searching through the material he was carrying, although what he was looking for, no doubt, was in a manila envelope stuck to his butt.

The theory that I support about the reason for such losses suggests an energetic, high-functioning brain that tries to grab too much, so some data are randomly tossed overboard as the vessel fills. Things, and any notion of where they are, simply float away. This is the flattering “geniuses are forgetful theory”, which I subtly promote by pointing out stories of befuddlement involving brilliant characters like Albert Einstein, Sherlock Holmes and the Absent Minded Professor, who in the old Disney movies soared around in the flying model T that he created, but lost things like children and his house.

There are other examples of brilliant people who lose things at the website for the Global Association for Distracted People, which, by the way, is currently polling members about how often they have to call their cell phone to find it.  (The other day I said my daughter’s name from another room and she called my phone immediately, not to be lazy but because she assumed I was searching for it.)

In another theory, less charitable observers might say its simply because we have tired or limited brains, unable to keep two things in our head at one time. So, for instance, if I’m going out, and my brain is consumed by complex activity like grabbing my coat and opening the door, I’m expected to also remember my keys?

There are more studies on the topic that you might think, perhaps because researcher types similarly suffer and want to know why. A group of researchers from Japan did a study very directly entitled “Why do people lose their own things?” and  (through translation, I believe) concluded, “From the analysis on the interviews, easiness to lose things depends on features of things (sizes and shapes, etc.) And ways of interactions between people and things (frequencies of uses, usages, etc)”. They also pointed to situations where “a deviation arose in normal sequences, because in such a situation people tend to lose their things.”

I think that means that I’m more likely to lose a watch battery than, say, an elephant, especially if I don’t change my watch battery often and if I’m changing it one time while slightly inebriated in a snowstorm in the entryway of a CVS – an actual occasion when I did lose not just one watch battery, but two. I’ve proven this Japanese theory here and many other times.

There is also a lot of research about solutions – and techniques we can try to find things. One suggests we “pretend we are the missing item”. Isn’t that a lot like “If I were a Phillips screw driver where, would I be?”  a version of a phrase that always irritatingly comes to mind during my many searches and never seems to pay off.

Other strategies suggest things like organizing items better, taking your time and writing things down. One expert at Self recommends this:  “I want you to think about where you would go to find item A and then put it there.” And isn’t that a bit like a judge releasing a serial killer with the admonition:  “be nice now”.

I have developed over time my own strategies – a collection of file folders for all sorts of things (one is labeled “stuff” and others “house stuff”, “old stuff”, “important stuff” and “$ stuff”, unfortunately, which confuses me at times and causes me not file some things, which then tend to get lost.  Cupboards and drawers are organized by patterns in my brain, which seems to confuse others (the “repair drawer”, for instance, contains the sewing kit, masking tape, hammer, band aids and the manual to the new blender) I leave things in “might get lost” bins, baskets and bags, which works until the baskets overflow or the bags get lost, multiplying the problem.

I continually compensate and seek new ways to improve. I had one particularly good list of strategies to avoid losing things and techniques for finding them, but I haven’t seen it lately. It was right here…




dizney (washington post)

washington post -- cover, style section
washington post — cover, style section

This essay first appeared in the Washington Post

Here I am admiring our autograph from chubby little Dale, one of those overly accommodating chipmunks (or beavers or whatever they were) from that old cartoon. I quickly huddle with my kids about strategy to get access to other characters, weighing each one’s fame and line length. I’m lobbying for Goofy. I’d like to meet him.

At one point there is a shoving incident among families waiting for Minnie Mouse, who expertly feigns shock then shakes a big soft finger at the offenders, suggesting in her easy manner that she’s seen it all too often. Reality.

This is where I’m excitedly describing to my patient wife how nice Minnie was and how Pluto’s autograph includes little pictures made out of letters in his name. Then there, right there, you can see I’ve spotted Captain Hook scratching himself immodestly (thankfully with his good hand). That’s when it occurs to me that, hey, these are pimply-faced kids in a slick costumes. They get us to believe in these characters, then in costume copies of the characters.  Layers of reality.

Here I am again, and its gotten rainy and chilly and I’m juggling food court meals and heading back to our motel room in what might be seen as the working-class neighborhood of Disney World – the All-Star resort. My mood is not bad, but it’s headed there. It takes a speeding monorail in that direction when I confront the door.

This door does not open automatically dammit, and after three days at Disney World I’ve grown accustomed to having doors swing or slide or pop or lift or fold open as I approach, or be opened by a smiling “cast” member. Pushing it causes me to spill a drink.

I grumble, punctuate that with a mild expletive and trudge away, enduring the glares of visitors who, I imagine, worry that my sourness is diminishing their valuable moments of Disneyization. “And it’s raining and cold,” I mutter to the people in the swimming pool. The thought returns. The real world is out there waiting for us.

Here’s the whole family at the much ballyhooed Rainforest restaurant in Downtown Disney, one of those places where you wait for hours and the menu is unmanageably long and portions unmanageably big. Right next to us an animotronic ape wakes up and bellows and moves very convincingly. My kids hardly bat an eye. This is the minors compared to Disney, and the thought is back: Reality. How will the playground up the road at home and Jerry’s Pizza measure up… or broken toys, bad television reception and stuffed animals that don’t talk or move.

I’m not one of the folks who hates Disney, who fear Disney will take over the world, or is ruining our children with a bastardization of classic tales (Hey, yea, let’s show them the real story, where the queen hungers for Snow White’s internal organs and eventually dies from being forced to wear red hot shoes)  I like Disney stuff and this place is very good. But this is where it has begun to concern me that it might be too good, and I start my search for flaws, for reality.

Here I am in the bathroom with my son, the spotless bathroom where things all go off automatically like characters in an animated film. And there in the corner I happily spot some graffiti with a claim about Mickey’s sexual preferences.

Here we are on one of the clean, efficient shuttle buses. And this is a human named Donald, who has a look on his face suggesting that he thinks working here with this name and having it spelled out in large letters on his name tag is a cruel joke. He doesn’t look comfortable in the bright green and purple driver’s uniform either. He’s not mastered that cast member chipperness.

He looks like…well…like a bus driver from Dayton or Binghamton, a bit hunched over and a bit gray, with a cough that sounds like only portions of his lungs remain in tact. As we leave I thank him warmly (Hoping, in the best Disney spirit, to make up for the food court incident).  Donald sort of grunts “yea, sure” at me, with what I perceive is a bit of sarcasm. It was borderline, the sarcasm. But he was definitely not displaying the spirit I imagine the employee manual demands. I thank him again even more warmly.

In this one the smarmy waiter is standing outside our car-table at the elaborate drive-in theme restaurant impressing my kids and annoying us with his invasiveness and wit.  Then he drops ice cream in my daughter’s lap trying to be cute and loses his cool and breaks the spell. I tip him well.

I collect these reminders of the real world. I annoy my family by pointing them out — a lonely scrap of trash along the well-groomed Disney highway, the cast member with bad breath, the Dalmatian hat left on the bench and the soggy french fries.

This is us back at our room. Here’s  my daughter playing for a long time with a handful of stones from the motel parking lot. And my son clicks off the Disney Channel, grabs his small, soft football, and begins his commentary about the game he’s about to win, then dives time and again onto the bed.

And here I am in the corner smiling at them, wearing big, round black ears and carefully reading every single page of the newspaper.


This year it began with one of those folksy, hand-lettered signs taped to the door of a hardware store. “Time for pruning,” it cheerfully suggested.

“Yeah,” said a peppy but nondescript voice inside my head, matching the note’s neighborly tone. “sounds like a good idea, don’t you think?”

“All right” laughed another voice from deeper within, sounding a little like Rush Limbaugh or one of those chubby profane FM disc jockeys.

See it usually starts just this way – simply and innocently. I see a promotion for tools or hear a gardening guru’s broadcast suggestion or                   I spot trimming activity by one of our retired neighbors, incessant in their preventative maintenance, who I watch for signs about what I’m supposed to be doing around my house – or what I should be feeling guilty aboout not doing.

Then that first voice, the same one who suggests that I brush my teeth for the full two minutes and recycle that gooey old ketchup bottle someone stuffed into the trash, points out that hacking back trees and bushes is a good and necessary thing, and suggests that even I can do it. The second voice, the Limbaugh one, just chuckles.

The stage is set, and on one of those energizing blue-sky, crunchy and clear autumn days, I whistle into our shed, fueled by an abundance of that wholesome energy that home maintenance sometimes provides.  And I step out slightly altered– armed with clippers and snippers and saws. The foliage in our yard lets out a low moan.

Those closest to me also sense something is wrong. When I hint at my intentions, my wife winces, then begins to talk to our kids about going to the mall or a pumpkin festival somewhere. “What’s daddy going to do,” my daughter asks as my wife whisks them off, like Donna Reed trying to soothe the Bailey children and protect them from a half-cocked Jimmy Stewart.

Oh come on, I sniffle to myself. It’s not that bad.

But it is. There are reminders everywhere from pruning seasons gone by: the shrubs with gaping wounds, the trees with awkwardly conspicuous stubs where limbs once grew, and the bushes tilting and swaying in deadly still air.  Oddly-shaped foliage. Cloning gone bad. Disney World meets Dali.

But I can’t see that now. This clean and neat motivation for such trimming is still humming about in my head. There is something cleansing about it all, like finally freeing that tooth-trapped popcorn husk or unloading a lot of stuff at a yard sale.  Judicious pruning will,  I recite to myself, let the tree breathe, bring on healthy new limbs, brighten the yard, improve the lawn and entirely justify a couple of beers and bucketloads of salty snacks afterwards, with my butt firmly planted in front of a football game.

This is good old healthy homeowning stuff. What could be better. What is everyone so worried about.

I hear Rush humming along cheerfully, probably steeped in the process of gagging and tying up the other guy in my head.


I begin with a light touch — just a trim, I’m careful and controlled.

But something changes. Where a little is good, when I am transformed this way, a whole lot more seems a whole lot better. There is no feel for just how much space one skinny little branch occupies; no awareness that I’ve slipped into a never-ending cycle of making correction upon correction with snip after snip and slice after slice after slice.

“You don’t want to have to bring out all these tools again,” the deep voice says. “Get the job done right the first time.”

“Knock some off over there,” it says. “Now, quick. Over here.”

“This damn bush is out of control.  You better teach it a lesson now.”

“It’ll grow back. Don’t worry. “

This season my neighbor Chris, unwittingly offered me an even more deadly device, which allows trimming of highest branches. It has poles that extend to the stratosphere, a saw at the tip and an efficient clipping device operated by a rope. “All right!” I heard someone say.

This tool made an overgrown crab apple tree my first victim. I began trimming a myriad of little branches that had sprouted from it, but the more I cut, the more I cut. “Go, man, go” is all I heard.  Before long, what remained was a twisted, scarred trunk with four or five small branches unnaturally sticking from it, like someone had glued arms willy-nilly to the Venus de Milo.

.Then, inexplicably, I cut off the branches and left the trunk: a living tree one minute,  a utility pole the next.

A Lilac bush followed and was nearly exterminated. Then I scarred a young Redbud tree and awkwardly altered a soaring Linden and thinned a failing Dogwood, pushing it closer to death.  The voice chanted my name over and over. Anything green and vertical was snipped at a bit. And a bit more. And a bit over here. And a bit there. And a bit over here again

Chris paid a visit. “Do think you are getting carried away?” he asked, sounding a bit like the gun shop owner talking on the megaphone to the recent customer who’s holed up in he 7-11 with eight hostages.

“No it’s fine,” I responded, only half conscious that our lawn was ankle deep now in green appendages

Then my family returned. My wife looked at he crab apple tree, rolled her eyes and headed into the house. My kids examined the limb-covered ground somberly . “Why did you kill so many trees,” my daughter asked.

“I didn’t kill anything,” I mutter absently. “This is a good thing for our yard. Now go in the house.”

But she has freed the first voice. “Oh, no. Not again. What have you done,” it said.

“Just some pruning, my friend.” came a response. “Just some pruning.”

I am now a nagging solicitor of donations. It is official.

I now have raised money by badgering friends and family. All the stuff you’d expect occurred  — pleading e-mails, a “team” and a record of our ongoing effort; a Web site with resources to help with the slick, shameless solicitations.

It was for a good cause — and one close to me. But others have said those things to me and I have to myself thought: “don’t use your relationship with me to support your cause.”

And so I knew others were thinking similarly as I grew a mustache for money.

But I don’t know if there are any other ways to get people —  occupied by screens and gazing at the just the things they want to see — to be concerned about things they don’t want to see…