Thursday, November 27, 2014

Things I am thankful for this Thanksgiving

This is a day for reflection as well as feasting, and though it has been a somewhat frustrating year, I have much to be thankful for:

I am thankful to still be here. I do have Stage 4 cancer.

I am thankful the meds are working (for now, anyway), and though it means I will probably never have hair again, hey, it also means I'll never have to shave my legs again. Win!

I am thankful that even though one of the nastier side effects is numbness in my fingers, I can still type, though I spend a lot of time correcting fumbles. I would rather fumble than silence the words in my brain trying to get out, which have always been enabled by my fingers.

I am thankful for my family, without whom much of my life would be meaningless and simply not possible.

I am thankful for good friends and neighbors, who have shown me how to be a better person myself.

I am thankful for all the readers who have risked a few bucks on my books. Their reactions have brought me much pleasure.

And I am thankful for life, with all of its rich, varied, and often frustrating experiences. We don't learn much when everything goes well all the time.

Pay forward your blessings and don't dwell on your hurts, and have a wonderful, safe, healthy, and happy Thanksgiving!


(corrected 3 December to correct some exceptional weird formatting)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Here's to you, Jack

I have a ghost at my heels these days. It's big, white, furry, and its name is Jack. It haunts me every time I step out the back door, an invisible presence bounding out from under some tree, eagerly anticipating a long walk or a ride through the woods. It nudges me toward the dog food barrel at the barn...until I remember that ghosts don't eat. Even the neighbor's cat is lonesome, crying plaintively when I appear, because his big fuzzy living cat bed is no longer in its accustomed place.

Oh, Jack, I miss you, buddy.

I had to do the "kind" thing for my dog on Monday. He was 15, a giant mutt most probably a cross between a St. Bernard and a Great Pyrenees with who knows what else thrown in. He was a rescue whose original owner thought the solution to a litter of unwanted puppies was to toss the whole bunch out of a moving car. It permanently damaged Jack's hips, which got worse as he aged, until finally he could only hobble and it was painful to watch him trying to get up and down. Despite an appetite like a horse he was never fat, but of late...bed slats looked better. Even so, until this weekend he was still happy to see me, eager to try and go, indomitable in his enthusiasm for life. Sunday that changed. The spark had gone out of his eyes. The lift of his head, the tail wag, were acknowledgement, no more. Nice to see you, Mom. Sorry, can't get up. And I knew. He was telling me it was time. So, despite an increasingly rigid resistance on my part to yielding even one single day to Death, I bowed to the fact that he wasn't having fun anymore.

Misery should not be the default state of life.

Thus, the ghost at my heels, treading every well-worn path we walked together. He was a funny old dog, amusing and strange. He hated being in the house because it upset him to be confined, and he slept in snowbanks because he had so much hair. He could sleep through dynamite but one whiff of my scent on the wind brought him running (geez, Jack, do I really smell that bad?). He could never lift his leg to pee because of his hips, which must have frustrated him no end, but at least the tires on my truck were spared from being watered every day. He never entirely trusted anyone, even me, and his hearing was ever so selective. Call him, and he would most likely grin over his shoulder and slink farther out of reach. But stick to my heels? Oh, yes. Like glue.

This was the dog who spent years ambling along in the wake of my horse despite his limp, eagerly running to go with me whenever it looked remotely like I might be going for a walk or heading for the tack room. He drove me crazy barking at me when I sat on the back steps to put on my shoes, telling me to hurry up, hurry up already. This was the dog who was so amiable that ours was the neighborhood canine Kool-Aid house where all the mutts for a mile around came to socialize. This was also the dog who startled the stuffing out of me one day when the neighbor's pit bull got too aggressive and nipped at my coattails. Wow! Where did this Jack come from, the white knight charging down the hill to ram the pit bull, inserting himself forever thereafter between me and Diesel even though that pit eventually became my friend? Jack never forgave him. Ever.

And this was the dog who, when I had to be in the hospital and recuperating for a month without seeing him, all but crawled into my lap the first day he saw me and wouldn't get out. And, when I resumed short walks outside to try and recover my strength, he trotted ahead of me as usual--until he saw that I couldn't keep up. At which point he fell back beside me and very carefully matched his pace to mine, glued to my knee.

This from the dog who wouldn't let himself be touched. Only on his terms.

He romped into old age with his best bud, Shelly, the Rottweiler next door, the both of them so increasingly decrepit it was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters with canes and walkers. But they never lost their enthusiasm, smiling and bouncing (sort of) like puppies. He quit chasing cats when he figured out he could no longer keep up even a little bit, and became the tolerant older brother ignoring the tails brushed under his chin and the blob of warm gray fur curled up against his side. His criteria for barking at cars coming up the driveway was a mystery known only to him. As watchdog he was pretty much a bust--but all he had to do was saunter around the house into full view to put strangers back in their cars, fast. Like I said, he was big.

And now he's gone, and I miss him. Yes, this is the wake for my friend Jack. Goodbye, buddy. You'll be missed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Revisiting Verdun...and a few old memories

One of my very first published articles appeared 23 years ago today in Stars and Stripes. I had actually sold it several months before, but the U.S. was in the midst of Desert Storm at the time, and the publication did not want to put an article with so solemn a theme in front of a lot of readers anxious about loved ones off at war. So they held on to it, and published it especially for Veterans' Day. I am proud of the fact that they thought so highly of it, and reserved it for a day special to everyone in the armed forces.

Verdun, City of Crosses (you can read it here in its original form), is about my first visit to Verdun, France, site of one of the fiercest battles of World War I. In this 100th year after the start of that terrible conflict, it seems fitting to share it again. The battle began in February 1916 and lasted months, claiming in the end nearly a million casualties. It was sobering to walk around the battlefield with its slender trees sprouting from myriad shell craters, to tour the museum, and to see the ossuary with its 130,000 never-to-be-identified skeletons resting underneath. Creepy, mournful, sad... There really aren't words for such an accumulation of death.

Just a few weeks later, I got my own taste of what it must have been like to fight there. Being in the Army at the time, stationed in Germany, I was accustomed to the yearly qualification requirements for personal weapons. That year, my company got stuck going to the rifle range in March. Now, March in Germany is not that pleasant, and that day was no exception. It was cold, rainy, windy, and there was mud everywhere. Mud, the scourge of the WWI doughboy.

Lying there atop a poncho that crackled with ice and did absolutely nothing to shield my shivering little self from the effects of lying in oozing slime that felt like it had been imported from Antarctica, I got an infinitesimal taste of what trench life must have been like during the war to end all wars. There were no lice, no rats, no snipers, no endless artillery shells dropping at random all over the range, but that mud... For three or four hours we took turns lying out there shivering, attempting to hit targets that seemed to swim out of our sights of their own accord, taunting us to quit shaking long enough to at least hit the damned paper. For once shooting in a gas mask didn't bother me, because at least it blocked the wind around my ears for a few minutes. When we got up, we were soaked, muddy, stiff with cold, and thoroughly, abysmally miserable. And that was only a few hours.

Imagine four years of it. If you survived that long. Not many made it through the whole war unscathed. And if they lived to go home, they never forgot the mud.

I am proud to be a veteran of the United States Army, but anything I went through during my service pales beside the daily misery of those who served in far harder circumstances. Desert heat, steaming jungles, arctic after day of acute discomfort, no sleep, constant tension...these are the lot of the men and women who serve in combat (and sometimes in peacetime), miseries quite apart from the fear of getting shot, or shelled, or blown up unexpectedly in your Humvee. I salute all of them who are now or who have ever served this country. Because of them, we all enjoy the freedom gifted to us when America was founded. May there always be more Americans willing to defend it than to tear it (and them) down.

Remember all those who have served on this day, and please, never forget those who never came home.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Falling out of love

I'm baaack! Like a bad penny, just when you think I'm never showing up again, here I am. August/September/October were less than stellar months, laden with radiation and chemo, the details of which I will not bore you with. I'm feeling better now, so here I am, still smiling every time I walk down the front steps and see this little guy.

The horses are now in winter hair, hanging around the barn most of the time in hopes I will show up with a) tacos, b) hay, c) a mud brush. The recent heavy rains have greened up the pastures again, though, so they are back to picking around for that lovely sweet green grass and bucking around for the sheer joy of it in the chilly air. Things are cooling off fast toward snow, however, and I am enjoying watching them while it lasts.

This morning I had an unexpected and long conversation with a friend trying to come to grips with divorce. It inspired me to come share a few thoughts. Over the past few years I have spent a lot of time helping various friends through the breakup of long-term relationships (12-25+ years). Having been through it myself, and long enough ago to have gained some perspective, what strikes me is how quickly and easily we fall in love, and how painfully and slowly we fall out. For the person ending the relationship, that process occurred within the marriage. For the person left behind, it is a bewildering, shattering, seemingly endless suspension of reality compounded by disbelief and overpowering reluctance. Coming together is a pretty effortless process aided by Mother Nature's urge to perpetuate the species. Leaving is...awful. Perhaps Mama Nature doesn't want us to go, having established the order of things she wants to see. All I know is that it often takes years to fall out of love.

How do you absorb the fact that the person you love no longer wants to be in your life? How do you keep from lashing out, clinging, or driving them farther away? How do you acquire the wisdom and maturity to give them the space they crave? Telling yourself you are better off without them is not the answer. Clearly your soul is not better off. Not yet. That pain is real. It is deep. It hurts with all the fire and passion of that first moment you realized you want this person in your life forever. Coals shoveled straight from Hell could not hurt worse. Divorce (which includes the breakup of any sincere relationship) shoves a clawed hand straight into your guts and rips out everything in its path.

It leaves you hollow inside.

Hollow is not all bad. Hollow means there is room for other things. Room to nurture something else. Room to grow. Hollow is an opportunity if you have enough left to seize it. Enough energy, enough wit, enough laughter, enough hope. Hollow is an open door to a different phase and another level of your life, one in which you are older, stronger, more experienced, and no longer yearning after the one thing you can no longer have.

It is a mistake to make one person the bright center of our lives. The bright center is in you, to shine where you please. Your mate chose not to shine it on you anymore. That is his or her right, though we wish/hope/demand that s/he honor the vows you both took to love, honor and cherish forever. You can't force a dying spark to revive any more than you can legislate love. But you can nurture the spark inside you and let it warm you instead of burn you out with bitterness and regret.

Divorce is like the ultimate war. It forces us to battle our own worst instincts. It sparks guilt, anger, whining, pettiness, greed, and sometimes outright cruelty. We can choose to indulge these things, or grow up and beyond them. Fortunately for us, we never stop growing up until the day we die. We are all, in a way, perpetual babies, because there are always going to be things we haven't yet encountered. Babies touch hot stoves because they have not yet learned about the danger. Young adults eagerly embrace relationships because they have not yet learned how easily or how deeply they can be hurt. The older we get the more cautious we become. Some call this cowardice. Others call it wisdom. What is wise is realizing there are always surprises waiting, and some of them are going to hurt. Divorce teaches us caution, but it should not teach us fear. If the one takeaway you leave with is "never love again" you will deny yourself the lessons learned from that first giddy love affair.

The first of which should be: broken doesn't mean irreparable. No matter how shattered you feel, all the pieces are still there. How you pick them up and put them back together will shape the rest of your life--and that is in your control. Just don't expect it all to come back together overnight. The hooks of love come out but slowly, and often in nasty little jolts over months or years of memory flashes that can break you to tears. That's normal. Grieve. Then go fill up that hollow space with something awesome.

Easier said than done, I know! But there it is, my (slight) wisdom for the day. Have a lovely weekend, everyone, and I wish I were at the World Fantasy Convention in Washington, D.C. right now!