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Requiem for a Good Dog

(Originally published June 27, 2009, on my Facebook page; reposted in honor of yesterday’s National Dog Day.)

I said goodbye to Bedevere tonight.

More than nine years ago, I adopted him from the North Little Rock Animal Shelter because Trudy (to whom I was married at the time) and I decided we needed a dog. Today, nearly 10 years old, he’s lost the use of his back legs and can’t stand the summer heat, among other ailments. He’s been living with Trudy since we separated and she made the toughest call a pet owner ever has to face: It was time for him to go. She let me know so I could come say goodbye.

I still remember the first day I saw Bedevere at the shelter. He was the saddest-looking little thing back then — four months old and not even 20 pounds, the victim of neglect and malnourishment at the hands of his bastard owners; he was so weak, he couldn’t get to his feet by himself. The animal control folks had originally planned to euthanize him when they brought him in, but as he lay there on the table and looked up with those big, deep, dark eyes of his, they couldn’t bring themselves to do it. So a couple of them took turns taking him home and trying to nurse him back to health.

Billy Grace, the shelter director, knew I’d been looking for a dog and wanted a boxer, so he gave me a call. First time I saw the dog they were calling “Rocky” (because he kept fighting to get back up), he still needed to have his back end lifted up so he could stand. But he was very cute, and just as sweet as you could imagine, and he looked like a full-blooded boxer with his fawn coat and black mask and floppy ears and little stump of a tail.

Two weeks later I picked him up and took him home. He was walking by then. Trudy and I proceeded to spoil the stuffing out of that dog — or into him, as the case was. He basically got the green light from the vet to eat all he wanted, and believe me, he wanted! Like many dogs who’ve been starved, he quickly became food defensive — he’d grown at you if you petted him while he was eating or chewing a bone, but he also didn’t stop eating or chewing.

The vet told us he’d likely be a bit of a runt. A big male boxer might reach 75 pounds or so, he said, but as poorly as he’d been fed as a puppy it was likely he’d be stunted. I love and trust my vet, but this one he got totally wrong — within a couple of years Bedevere, as we had named him in the manner of dorky medievalists, tipped the scales at 77 pounds. He was big, energetic and loved, loved, LOVED people. Especially women. Bring two new people home and he’d spend most of his time with the girl. Ladykiller, yes he was.

He had his idiosyncrasies. He never seemed to realize that his back legs had recovered. If you held up a toy or a bone, he’d jump a foot clear of the floor trying to get it. But if you wanted him to get into the car, he’d pop his front legs up and then look at you for a lift on his hind end. And he really never learned to stand up on his back legs and put his paws on you. Sit on the couch, though, and he was on your lap in a flash, crushing you beneath his well-muscled (and well-fed) bulk.

He slobbered like crazy. You didn’t want to be the first person he ran into after a visit to the water bowl. His farts could clear the room, and heaven forfend he started cutting ’em loose while he had you pinned down on the sofa. He had a LOUD bark, and could also pitch a ear-piercing shriek into it. He liked to go outside in the middle of the night and “gossip” with the other dogs. He liked to cuddle in bed, which basically meant a large swath of mattress was off-limits to you because he couldn’t be moved. He loved Kongs stuffed with peanut butter and frozen, but if you accidentally used chunky PB then you’d find a scattering of peanut bits on the floor wherever he’d been eating.

He loved walks, and I am ashamed that I never gave him enough of them. Take the leash out and he went crazy. Take out his car harness and he practically did backflips. He loved any ride in the car, even to the vet (where he was suspiciously well-behaved, almost never excitable). He absolutely loved our cats, though it was largely unrequited (and despite the fact he was — no kidding, we had him tested — slightly allergic to them). And he loved other dogs, straining at the leash every time he saw one, whether it seemed friendly or not. At one point our neighbors asked if he could “dogsit” their Rottweiler puppies until they got a fence built, and for Bedevere it was like it was Christmas every day; even after the fence was built and the Rotties grown, they’d get out every now and then and I’d come home from work to find one or both of them in the back yard with Bedevere.

He had his health problems. He was a little weak in the back legs, despite his recovery, and if he walked or played long enough, you could see him limping a little. He got terrible hotspots in the summer where his fur would fall out and leave itchy bare patches (that led to the allergy test, which told us yeast in his food and cedar chips in his doghouse were the culprits). He got hit by a car once and broke one of his front legs, but he recovered fully. In general, he was hale and healthy and eager to please.

And now he’s going to be put to sleep, because he just wouldn’t make it through another summer. He can’t use his back legs anymore — ironic, since that’s how he started life, but now there’s no hope of regaining that function. He has old dog issues, and there comes a point when you have to ask yourself if it’s time to let him go …

I’m crying now. Hang on.

… if it’s time to let him go in as gentle and humane a way possible. Trudy made that decision this week. By the time we separated three years ago, we had a second dog, Zoe, and she and Bedevere were inseparable. Trudy took the dogs in the divorce; I didn’t want both, but wouldn’t split them because that would be cruel, plus I wouldn’t have room. I took our last cat, Felicity, who still lives with me today. Anyway, I saw Bedevere a few times over the next six months or so, but not since then. I harbored no doubts that he was being well cared for. I also knew that the bigger the dog, the shorter the lifespan, and had always wondered when I’d get the call or e-mail about Bedevere.

So tonight I went out to see him one last time. He almost wasn’t recognizable — as big as he was three years ago, his was even more barrel-chested and bull-necked than I remembered. He was also old, so old — everywhere there had been black on his muzzle, his ears, around his eyes, was almost entirely gray. But he knew me, and he kissed me and let me rub his belly and hug him. He got to meet Kelly and, predictably, he fell immediately in love with her. I took pictures — if you look at the Bedevere album, you’ll see old and new pics of him.

And I said goodbye.

I said it with great sadness, with a crushing weight on my heart, but without regret. For I knew his had been a good life. His rescuers at the animal shelter — as fine and dedicated a group of public servants as I ever knew in my years as a reporter — put him in our hands, and we took care of the rest. We loved that dog. Loved him the way a dog should be loved — constantly, boundlessly and with absolutely no sense of proportion.

And however much we loved him he returned it. Can there truly be any creature more capable of unconditional love than a dog? Impossible! For a well-loved dog will pay you back tenfold — no, a hudredfold! He cares not a whit about your sins, your foibles, your crises petty or grand. He just loves you, and doesn’t stop.

What have we done to deserve this? What had I done? I don’t know that I could ever say, but I know this: My life was better for having had Bedevere in it, even these recent years when I never even saw him, not until the night before he was going to be put to sleep. And on this night, my heart swell night to bursting at the sight of that smushed-up nose, that little stump of a tail, and the unthinking, unstinting, immediate love that he lavished on me.

Crying again.

Good bye, Bedevere. You were the best dog in the world and I loved you. There will never be another dog like you.

41 Things to Love About Arkansas*

* Which may or may not be true.

1) The good folks of Gillett did not settle upon the signature dish of their annual political fete, the Coon Supper, until after trying, and failing, with possum, jackelope, and snipe.

2) The Dardanelle High School Sand Lizards were originally named for an early assistant coach’s ex-girlfriend, Sandy Izard.

3-6) Four episodes of “The Twilight Zone” were filmed in downtown Gurdon but remain unaired because of a rights dispute with the Concatenated Order of the Hoo-Hoo, whose monument figures prominently in each.

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The Boy and the Concentration Camp

I went to hear George Takei speak tonight not because of his ties to science fiction, but his ties to World War II.

Mr. Takei was just 5 years old when his family was uprooted from Los Angeles – losing virtually all of their possessions, including their home and his father’s business – during the U.S. government’s unconstitutional and unconscionable relocation of American citizens of Japanese descent during WWII. Being a child, what was a horrific trauma for his parents (and tens of thousands of other citizens) seemed like a grand adventure to him.

First relocated to a horse racing track in California, the family was forced to live for a month in a stable. This horrified his parents but for a young boy, he told the packed house, it was nearly magical.

“I could smell the horsies!” he said. “I loved the idea of sleeping where the horsies slept.”

Likewise, when the family got off the train in tiny Rohwer, Ark., and saw the internment camp’s brand-new barbed wire fence gleaming in the sunlight, young George’s take was again drastically different from that of his parents.

“To me, they looked like glittering gems strung on the wire,” he recalled.

As I listened to this man, with his strong baritone voice and his gracious manner and bright smile, I thought, What power childhood innocence has! To turn the nightmare of life in a concentration camp into an extended vacation in a marvelous, exotic land. To let memories of catching pollywogs in the swampy landscape still bring a feeling of delight 70 years later. To shield that little boy and his sister and brother from what could have been the most cruel and crushing experience of their lives – living behind barbed wire, imprisoned and distrusted by their own government.

George Takei would be entirely justified to hate America’s wartime government for what happened to his family. It was an atrocity. Yet, even though he has seven decades of life experience since those days, time in which he came to realize just how heinous a crime was perpetrated on not just his family but so many others, he does not harbor malice in his heart. He knows it was wrong, he knows we must always work to prevent something like it from happening again (as with the detentions without charge of American Muslims immediately after 9/11).

But he also holds sacred in his heart and mind that childhood sense of wonder, those happy memories that made the camp a place not of misery, but of happiness for a little boy. And those good memories, I am convinced, allowed the anger and incredulity he felt as a teenager to grow into the wisdom he later found as a man.

That wisdom came from many sources, including of course his own father. The elder Takei told his son that America’s strength and weakness came from the fact it was a democracy of the people, and had both the advantages of those people and their shortcomings. But you couldn’t have the one without the other. That is why, the son told us, we as a country must always work to ensure that we are acting from our strengths, and not from our weaknesses. That’s what is gradually happening today, he said, as states are recognizing that it is un-American to deny the right to marry on the grounds of sexual orientation. He believes this is the great opportunity of the current generation, and I agree; we must, as a nation, embrace the idea that we cannot relegate our fellow Americans to second-class citizenship just because we may not agree with or approve their lifestyle. There is no room in the Constitution for that.

On a couple of occasions as he recalled the pain his family endured during and after their internment, it seemed like Mr. Takei was on the verge of tears. I certainly was. His message, delivered calmly yet with heartfelt passion, could not have been more powerful if he had pounded his fist on the lectern and shouted at the top of his voice: This is America, and we’re better than that.

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Someone I Know Has Been Murdered

One of my friends and former colleagues from Spectrum Weekly, Gordon Young, sent me a shocking e-mail today: Anne Clancy, who had been our editor at the paper back in 1990 and 1991, had been murdered a couple of days ago by the woman she had lived with for much, if not all, of the last 20 years or more.

It’s amazing how strongly we can be affected by events involving people we have not see in years… or in this case, decades.

Anne Clancy was my first editor after I got out of college and took my first real-world job as a reporter with the spunky, upstart alternative weekly paper Spectrum in Little Rock, Ark., in 1990.

I remember many things about her, but what perhaps stands out the most is that she placed before me a bar that was, to my young and inexperienced eyes, way too high. She wanted things out of me as a reporter that I wasn’t prepared to deliver. And she held me to that standard. She helped build in me a foundation of skills that would serve me in a two-decade career as a journalist, and she did so by simply never wavering when I hedged or whinged or tried to weasel out of making one more phone call or rewriting that lede one more time.

One of the most distinct memories I have of our relationship was the time I decided, after being there for probably six months, that I wanted a raise. I went and talked to the publisher, Stephen Buel, but he said I needed to talk to Anne for a recommendation. I went to Philip Martin, one of the other editors, but he said I needed to talk to Anne. I went to Karen Wannemacher, the co-owner, and she said I needed to talk to Anne. And I gave up, because I knew if I went to Anne, she would tell me what I was afraid to admit to myself: That I had only been doing an average job, certainly not good enough to warrant a raise, and I’d have to work a lot harder before she would recommend me for one.

It’s funny, looking back, how a 6’5″ guy like me could be so easily cowed by one look from a slight, gentle, and mild-mannered woman like Anne. But she had presence. In spades.

Anne was also one of the first lesbians I’d known, and the first truly politically correct person. She wasn’t quite the stereotype of the PC nitpicker, but she had her pet peeves; for instance, whenever I would use the term “girl” or “lady,” she would immediately interject “woman.” But aside from that, she cared more about making sure I was respectful in how I treated people in my stories, and that I made sure I knew where to find people with a wide range of viewpoints and life experiences. Valuable lessons, both.

Anne also gave me one of the most valuable pearls of wisdom I ever received as a journalist, one I have passed on to interns and newbies and colleagues countless times over the years: “Eric, you have to be like Alice in Wonderland – curiouser and curiouser.” I took her at her word, and developed that sense of endless curiosity, and it has served me better than almost anything else I have learned over the years. (In the same meeting, Buel told me that a reporter has to be “a nosy bastard” – advice which I have also put to use and shared over the years, but Anne’s version was far more my style.)

Gordon sent me a link to a blog by one of Anne’s friends. It is a touching remembrance of her, and includes a lot of information about where her life took her in the years after I lost touch. It’s worth a read. [Sadly, the link is no longer viable – EJF]

Rest in peace, Anne. You deserved a better ending than this, but your immortality is safe in the hands of those who knew, respected, and loved you during your life. I am humbled to count myself among them.

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End the Preferential Primary

I cast my ballot Tuesday and, as usual when the primaries roll around, I only voted in the nonpartisan judicial races.

The reason is simple: I am an independent. I have never belonged to, and do not anticipate ever joining, a political party. However, just like anyone else I have opinions and preferences, and at election time I would appreciate the opportunity to express them in the manner promised me by the United States Constitution.

But because Arkansas holds preferential primaries, I don’t get that chance. In fact, a better term for what we hold here is “exclusionary primaries.” Because though my preference is to vote my conscience, I am excluded from voting at all in many primary elections. Why? Because I refuse to identify myself as a member of one of two private clubs, the Democrats or the Republicans.

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