Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Will Update: He's Gotten Off of the Seesaw

Will with the drawing New Hampshire
artist Chris Garby made and sent to us.
The seesaw gait is gone.  When Will walks he no longer rocks up and down like a broken slinky.  Instead, he moves forward.  There’s a fluidity to it that speaks of younger days. 

When we play Will buries his head in me. I tussle his hair a bit, give him gentle shoves, he shoves back, and he gives as good as he gets.  He then spins away, always to his left, bounds up as high as his hips will allow him – like a drunken bucking bronco, which means it isn’t too high – then returns to push in on me again.  I tug him closer and wrestle with him; he nuzzles me with his nose, his once angry mouth, which once-hungered for flesh and blood, still snaps but it is a soft playful snap aimed away from me and without malice.  It’s as though he’s learned to play again and taught himself not to bite.

His journey away from anger is not unlike my own, and I often recall my Aeschylus: “Tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”  That’s one thing Will and I share.  We’ve both tamed our “savageness” and in our own way made “gentle the life of this world”. 

This past weekend dear friends came north, and we enjoyed a long visit with them.  They had the opportunity to see what Will was like the first few weeks he lived with Atticus and me, and they even took care of him one night when Atticus and I were out.  He terrorized them with his temper tantrums. 

They’ve seen Will since then, but not all that often.  Now it’s months between visits – at least – and they see the changes that have taken place in the seventeen year old who wasn’t supposed to live this long.  Several months ago one of their children asked, “Are you sure that’s the same dog?” 

He isn’t. 

That was several chapters ago.  Will’s been writing a new conclusion to his life.  It falls under the category of a fairytale endings. 

Will was given a chance when we took him in.  Atticus and I surrounded him with peace, good food, compassion, empathy, and medication when he needed it.  He’s taken advantage of those footholds to save himself – with a little help from his friends.

I know the term “rescue” is big with some people, but I differ from many others in that I try not to look at how people and animals differ, but what they have in common. 

I know there were times in my life when I needed rescuing, and no one could do it for me.  It had to be an inside job.  Ask any of your friends who are in recovery.  You cannot rescue anyone.  What you can do is offer them an anchor.  “I’ll hold this end, drop the rope down into the abyss you are mired in, and I won’t let go as you pull yourself up.” 

I find the term “rescue” to be almost self-congratulatory and takes credit away from where it is due.  As I see it, Will rescued himself.  Atticus and I helped him along the way, gave him the anchor to a good life if he chose to take advantage of it, picked him up when he stumbled, and urged him forward.  But just like you and me he had to make up his own mind.

Yes, there have been many factors that conspired to help him along the way, but whenever Will arrived at a set of crossroads, the choice was always his.  That’s part of what makes his story unforgettable.  It is his story with his choices and his redemption.

I do believe in the osmotic effect of love.  I believe in prayers and good wishes and the scents of flowers, the vibrations of life-affirming music, and the softness in the fabrics I wrap his easily chilled body in. 

Recently someone mentioned that Will has received quilts, Afghans, and prayer shawls from all numerous people.  I like that these were made with caring hands fueled with loving intent.  He seems to enjoy each and every one of them.  I rotate them.  Some out of need, because he still has accidents and urinates on himself or falls in his own feces and things get messy, and floors, blankets, and carpets (not to mention Will himself) have to be washed, but even if that wasn’t the case, I like to imagine he feels the healing love that went into making these lovely garments as they are gently draped over his body.

Will, like all of us, needs help every now and again.  But I never tell myself or rob him of his dignity by referring to him as a “baby”.  Instead, I equate him to the elderly people I used to work with in the nursing home.  He deserves the same respect I offered elders who have endured much.  But in Will’s case, he has survived more than just years, he survived years of neglect and the way I see it, neglect is just another form of abuse. 

After surviving the terrors of a Nazi POW camp, Viktor Frankl wrote and spoke for decades about the choices he had to make and those that Will was confronted with: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Since I chose to see animals in the same light as I view humans, Frankl’s words work well for Will, and any other human or non-human animal that has been robbed of dignity.  This is one of the reasons dignity has been as much a part of Will’s rehab as have been the Metacam, Dasuquin, massages, and gentle stretches.  All of these have contributed to help Will recapture some of his life and because of that his seesaw gait is gone…as are nearly all the rest of the ups and downs he has wrestled with.   

Friday, January 10, 2014

Changes On Our Facebook Page

If I could do it all again, the one thing I’d change about my newspaper, The Undertoad, is replace some of the anger with humor.  Or at least cut the anger with humor.  Leave them laughing, but also thinking. 

When I started my paper, I was dumbstruck that community leaders thought it was okay to hate the mayor because she was a woman and a lesbian.  The good old boy network seemed to thrive on homophobia, as well as xenophobia.
When considering different levels of corruption and degrees of wrong doing in Newburyport I was reminded of something Aeschylus reported to have been carved in a stone in one of the Great Pyramids: “And no one was angry enough to speak out.”  So much was strange and dark and just downright wrong in Newburyport that I quickly became the one who was angry enough to speak out.  Yes, there was humor and good reporting and alternative ways of doing things, but my paper was fueled by anger. 

I suppose my own anger was further fueled when I reported the news only to find my tires slashed; windshield smashed, and the occasional death threat, as well.  Newburyport was a war zone for those “angry enough to speak out”, right there on those fancy brick sidewalks that lined the streets in front of increasingly expensive boutiques.  The tide of gentrification rolled in, and change was everywhere.  There was plenty to write about, but it was the stuff that took place in the shadowy underbelly of the city that I often led with.  

I was good at being angry – every two weeks for eleven years I wrote about the good guys and gals and the bad guys and gals.  I was also good at taking a stand.  So good, that Atticus’s name is derived from Harper Lee’s character in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  Some friends suggested it to me since they felt I represented the same kind of man – the kind that takes a stand when others might not. It was an interesting life for a fledgling writer. It was also a chaotic one.

Moving north afforded me a chance to get away from all that.  I mean what’s there to get angry about while sitting on top of a mountain with a Zen-like four-legged hiking partner? 

So six years ago I traded my anger for peace and life changed.  It became sunnier, happier, more carefree.  When folks up here discovered what I used to do, they asked me to take a stand on local issues, wanting me to throw my pen into the fight. I repeatedly said, “Sorry, I’ve put in my time.  No more politics for me.”

Life has been good since the move.  There are ups and downs with every life, but I now go about my days with far less drama.  I ease into each morning and out of every night.  I read; I write; I pray; I smile….I breathe.  It’s a simple as that. 

No longer is anger just around the next corner.  Instead, I’ve found magic behind the next tree in the forest.  I went from a place known as Cannibal City to one that resembles Narnia.

Our book reflected the revolution that took place in my life.  “Simplify, simplify,” as Thoreau wrote.  Life in Jackson has been that way. Simple, uncomplicated, free.   Atticus and I created our own world, and then invited Will to join it. 

Our Following Atticus Facebook page has taken on the same theme.  “Simplify, simplify.”  Be grateful.  Do your best to be kind, even if it isn’t always feasible or easy. (And when it isn’t possible, walk away.) Consider embracing light over dark. Strive to be you. The page has mirrored my changes and the quest I’ve been on as I’ve followed Atticus. 

Lately, though, I’ve noticed something curious on our Facebook page that bothers me.  It began a few months ago. It had a familiar scent to it, so familiar, in fact, that it slaps me in the face when I notice it. What I’ve seen is increasing doses of anger are appearing as comments on our simple little page about living an basic life in the mountains with two dogs while following my dreams. 

I’m not quite sure where it’s coming from, but over the past several months, as the number of followers have increased, angry comments have also increased.  I don’t get it.  It’s one thing to be angry with a crooked mayor, a homophobe, a dirty cop – but we started seeing angry comments about the silliest of things.  For instance, one such post that bothered a few people was our Christmas tree…

“Who takes down a tree the day after Christmas? That’s just stupid!”

“Why would you cut down a tree for your house?  That’s selfish.”

“You are endangering Will.  He’s going to eat some of the tree, and he’ll die. Dogs die that way all the time.  You need to take better care of him?”

“Why do you need to force your religious symbols on us?”

All told there were seven angry comments about the tree.  Thankfully they were trimmed from the page quickly.

Others were angry when I quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he stated a plea for animal rights throughout the world.  As far as I know, no one was angry with Desmond Tutu himself, but from out of nowhere religious comments came flying.  So did political comments.  Republicans versus Democrats.  Jews versus Baptists versus Catholics. Oy vey!  And all I wanted was to show that world leaders are now taking stands on behalf of animals. 

In the past two weeks, my moderators and I have pulled down six seemingly innocent posts.  The latest was two days ago.  It was a video that had Atticus and me walking around Diana’s Baths. I was filming it for a friend with fond memories of the area, and Atticus and I were quite pleased to be out on that freezing morning getting some exercise and seeing the sights.  Then I decided I’d share the video with everyone. Many liked it, but more than twenty others had something to say about Atticus not wearing a coat and/or boots.  They went from little passive aggressive jabs to scolding, to being downright angry, to telling me I was not looking out for his best interests.  It didn’t matter that Atticus is used to this weather and was not the least bit uncomfortable, or that I had written several chapters in our book about his exploits during three consecutive winters when we climbed 188 four-thousand foot peaks.  They were angry and wanted me to know it.   

There have been other innocent posts that have had people leaving derisive remarks and, again, I just don’t get it.  What’s worse is that these people actually seemed to think they had a right to do so. 

You know something is wrong when an enjoyable walk in the woods turns into a debate about animal welfare.

Social media is a strange beast. It can do a lot of good, and we are blessed that the vast majority of our 26,000 followers are kind, considerate, and supportive.  They are good neighbors, thoughtful visitors, and if they don’t have anything nice to say, they typically don’t post something.  I appreciate that a great deal.  But social media can also be a place for people to vent their anger.

It caught me by surprise, and I stumbled for a bit.  Now I know what people are angry about has little (or nothing) to do with Atticus, Will, or me.  What they are mostly angry with is their own lives, and it flows out of them as they sit behind their keyboards foisting their beliefs on others.  But having been there…having been the critical one, I still don’t get it.  What we post is pretty innocuous stuff.

The judgmental anger is far too familiar to the life I used to know and goes in the opposite direction of where I want to go and the life I choose to lead.  Hence, we are making some changes.  They are basic.  And let me say that I know this only goes for a small portion of the people who end up on our Facebook page, but here they are:

*You are allowed to be as angry as you want, just keep it to yourself. 

*I don’t want negativity on our page.  It’s been a peaceful place, for the most part. 

*I will continue to post, but I’ve added extra moderators, and they will not hesitate to delete negative comments and ban users who feel they need to express their anger. The moderators will be very active, but not interactive.  They are on board to protect the integrity of the page. 

And…and…well, that’s the main part of it.  It’s zero tolerance on our part for those who lack tolerance for whatever it is that is getting them cranky.  There are other minor changes, but so minor you won’t notice them, and they don’t deserve to be mentioned. 

When I started The Undertoad, I wrote that my purpose was “to weed the garden, shine light in the dark places, and poison the poisoners”.  With our new policies, we only mean to weed the garden.  That should be enough. 

What it comes down to is this: I like the page we’ve created.  I like what it stands for and we will do our best to keep it that way. I welcome people in for a glimpse of our lives, if they choose to look, and only ask that you remember that the life we lead is not a referendum.  We are what we are.  We appreciate those who go by the Golden Rule of treating others as they want to be treated, and that’s the majority of our members.

In the end, it all comes down to this: if you leave angry comments on Facebook, not just this page, but any page, perhaps you shouldn't be visiting that page...or any Facebook page.  This is supposed to be entertainment.  Take it from someone who used to embrace being angry.  Life is too short.  Then again, how you act is your business; but how you act on our page is my business.  

My apologies to have to spell this out for everyone, even though it doesn’t concern most of you. 

Thank you for coming to our Facebook page and participating. 

Onward, by all means,

Sunday, January 05, 2014

"Never lose hope, my heart. Miracles dwell in the invisible." ~ Rumi

Oh, the places he's gone.
Will has a birthday coming up. 

He’ll be seventeen on January 14.  Or maybe not.  Maybe he already is, and we missed the anniversary of the exact date he was brought into this world. 

As most of you know, Atticus and I adopted Will in May of 2012.  I think the date was the sixth.  A brief history: Will was dropped at a kill shelter in NJ by folks who (reportedly) had grown too old to take care of themselves, never mind him.  A kind-hearted shelter person feared no one would take this special needs dog who was deaf and mostly blind, not to mention partly infirm, and reached out to New Jersey Schnauzer Rescue.  The posted on their Facebook page how heartbreaking Will(iam)’s story was.  Sue Muller Weber, long a proponent of rescue and a fan of Following Atticus, posted the update on her Facebook wall.  Laura Bachofner, a friend of Sue’s who is also a proponent of rescue and a fan of Following Atticus, then shared the update on the Following Atticus page.  From there, the most unlikely thing happened. 

Atticus and I were quite content in our lives. We were hiking, enjoying the lack of drama from our Newburyport newspapering days, and thriving in the quiet country life.  Yet something within me saw this old dog’s plight and decided that we would give him a home in which to die in.  I didn’t expect him to last very long; no one did, really, and so I accepted the fact that Atticus and I were taking on a hospice case.  All I wanted for Will was to be able to die with dignity and not the sense of betrayal and/or abandonment that I imagined he was feeling.  (There’s much more to this story, but I will go into with our next book.) 

Here it is January of 2014, and Will is as happy as he’s ever been.  Instead of dying, he decided to live, and that is fine with me. As I said to him from the moment he took his first faltered steps in redefining his life, “You can leave whenever you wish, but feel free to stay as long as you want.  You have a home here.” 

His journey has been remarkable, and his steps in re-defining himself will also be written about in the next book (along with many other things) so I will not go into them here. 

As for his birthday, no one knows exactly when it is.  All that was written down when he came to live with us was that he was fifteen.  Some who are hardcore into rescue wrote to tell me his birthday is the day Atticus and I took him into our home, for that’s what they always do.  No disrespect to them, or anyone else who practices this belief, but that doesn’t work for us. 

The way I see it, Will came into our lives that first week of May, 2012.  He had a long history before that, even if no one really knows what it entails.  Who was I to ignore that?  So I came up with a date at random, with no special meaning, and chose it as his birthday: January 14th. 

Okay, it really does have a special meaning for me.  It was my way of respecting that he had a life before us – this is something I’ve always tried to remember.  And I’ve done my best to respect his unique journey and how it differed from our or anyone else’s.  (This is the reason our moderators quietly delete comments about either Atticus or Will saying anything like, “I have/had a dog just like him.” 

I believe that journeys are unique, whether they are taken with two feet or four. 

But all of this is nothing more than details and details don’t always matter.  I really don’t care what date Will was born.  What I care is that he had a life, it seemed to come to an end, and he could have given up, but instead he chose to extend his last chapter to create several more.

As for Will’s celebrated birthdate, I know there are many who will want to send him something, but what I’d prefer is that perhaps you wear his shirt, drink out of his mug, remember the individual he is, and if that is not enough and you want to do something special, reach out to the animal shelter of your choosing and make a donation in Will’s name, or maybe even adopt a senior dog yourself.

Taking in a senior dog can be expensive.  It can be challenging.  It can wear you down.  But it can also reward you in priceless other ways, give you reason to celebrate as you clear each hurdle together, and it can renew an animal’s faith in humans, not to mention renewing yourself a bit. 

Thank you for caring about Will. 

Onward, by all means,