Jack, we hardly knew ye…..

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On the night of July 4th, 2014, our male ruby Cavalier King Charles spaniel ran away. Clark was very nervous about thunder and loud noises so the night of 4th of July was a nightmare for him. We were living and working in a campground in south Florida at the time. The dogs were safely in the camper for the night, and Clark wanted nothing to do with the bombast occurring outside of the RV. Thinking Clark was safely hiding somewhere in the camper, I opened the door to change a lightbulb. I felt something brush by my legs and saw it scurry into the surrounding jungle. A quick inventory of the remaining dogs told us it was Clark who had bolted into the night. After the first hour of fruitless searching, a cloud of dread descends upon you and the thought that you might never see your dog again becomes a very real possibility. It’s the same feeling you get when you lose track of your child in a crowded store or leave your Stradivarius in the back of the cab. You feel helpless and suppress the urge to panic while you search the jungle with flashlight as unending fireworks explode over your head. You imagine how Clark must feel. Three hours later, after the fireworks finally subsided, Clark came out of the woods and was brought home. We all slept peacefully that night. I tell that story to tell this one. On the morning of July 5th, a lost dog was found in the campgrounds. A small male short haired, black and tan terrier mix was found by some guests in the park. It was obvious he had spent the night in the campgrounds, alone and afraid, much like Clark. Since I was on duty that morning, the dog was given to me. Having been through the whole K├╝bler-Ross, lost dog scenario myself the night before, I saw this as some kind of divinely appointed opportunity to “pay it forward” and return this lost creature to his home. All my energy was committed to finding this dog’s owners. I knew how badly they must be feeling and looked forward to being the hero that returned their lost boy. I would, of course, accept no reward. Because heroes don’t do that. It’s bad form. But days were to turn into weeks and so on and so forth. It seemed no one was looking for this little lost guy. That was inconceivable to me. This little guy had been socialized with dogs and people. He knew how to sit. He loved his walks. He was crate trained. He was submissive and respectful. Someone once loved this dog. Why wasn’t anyone looking for him? It became apparent we might adding a new dog to our pack. We had taken to calling him John Doe while we were looking for his owners. (We also have a Jane Doe in our pack but that’s another story.) John Doe was shortened to Jack. He looked like a Jack. So when we moved out of the campground and into a house, Jack came with us. He was an older dog, maybe nine or ten years old. He became good friends with Jane Doe and shared a crate with her. Jack fit seamlessly into our pack and seemed to love us as much as we loved him. But there always was a lost boy preoccupation about him. Sure, he was a naturally submissive dog but there seemed to be a air of sadness about him. Maybe I’m just anthropomorphizing a bit but it was real and it was there. Our pack was now five, three Cavalier King Charles spaniels (Gwendolyn, Clark and Belinda), Jane Doe (a chihuahua mix) and Jack. The five did everything together. They slept, ate and played as a pack. Jack and Jane Doe were the senior citizens and less active than the Cavaliers so they naturally gravitated to each other. They napped together and would sit in the sun with each other. Jack came to us with very bad teeth. When he started to show signs of pain, we took him in for a cleaning and extraction of any teeth beyond help. This is a very routine procedure for older dogs and we all expected Jack to come back to us as his old self. Unfortunately, Jack continued to have pain and developed an unusual gait. His back legs would cross in front on each other when he walked, much like how a fashion model walks on the runway. It seemed as though the pain in his jaw had been replaced by pain in his hips. To make matters worse, Jack hated taking pills and was able to detect medicine no matter what you’d do to disguise it. We had to pill him manually but Jack could still cough up the pill and spit it on the floor. He would struggle and thrash while we tried to restrain him which only caused him more pain. We took Jack for x-rays to see if he might have arthritis and look for tumors. The x-rays showed a spine in the early stages of arthritis with two noticeable bone spurs on his neck and lumbar area. His hips looked fine. The lumbar spur was probably the cause of the strange gait and pain. We were referred to a neurologist who could take a CT scan and see it there was anything that could be done to help Jack. In the meanwhile, Jack’s pain seemed to increase every day. Some days he could barely walk. Some days he would stay on his blanket all day, never seeming to find a comfortable position. Sometimes he’d just sit and pant from the pain. It was becoming obvious that this was no way for a dog to live. The horrible reality to having to decide what to do for Jack was here. Intellectually, it’s obvious what needs to be done if there’s no alternative to a life of constant pain. Emotionally, it’s never so obvious. I brought Jack to the neurologist’s office in the morning where he received a full work up. Apparently these bone spurs are common and in most cases quite treatable. Usually it’s just a matter of bone growing into the spine that causes the pain and near paralysis of the hindquarters. The surgeon will have to take a CT scan to see what he’s dealing with and, if it’s operable, the prognosis is quite good in these cases. They were relentlessly optimistic about Jack’s possible outcome. The CT scan and surgery were scheduled for the next day. I was elated at the idea that Jack’s horrific decline might just be reversible. To see him walk again, to have him follow me where ever I go again was well worth the enormous financial sacrifice it would take to pay for his surgery. I put some guitars up on Craig’s List for sale to secure the extra cash I’d need to fix my boy. Just one more night of pain, and it would all be over. Jack and I awoke early the next day for the trip to the hospital for his scan and surgery. Jack’s pain the previous night was as bad as it had ever been. His cries woke me up as he tried to get comfortable of his bed. By now he’d completely lost the use of his left hind leg. I lifted him as carefully as I could into the car where he would sit and shake and pant the entire way to the vet. Once there, I filled out the requisite paperwork that precedes any surgery, while Jack took a painful dump on the reception area floor. Everyone assured me it was quite all right and someone would be down to clean it up. They wouldn’t let me do it. Rules are rules, I guess. Soon an orderly was down to take Jack and give me the final instructions. They’ll be doing the CT scan in an hour or so and the surgeon would call me after they had the results. I then told the nurse what I tell every vet when I have to leave any of my dogs: “Take good care of my boy.” I was assured they would. I returned home and my wife and I had breakfast and went about our usual routine. She was heading over to her mothers later on that morning but wanted to wait until we got the call on Jack. Several hours past before my cell phone finally rang. After the normal doctor phone call pleasantries I was told, ” I’m afraid I have some very bad news……..” The lumbar bone spur was not a spur at all. Instead it was a cancer that the doctor described as “very aggressive”. It had already begun to spread and there was nothing he could do for Jack. He asked if we’d like some time to decide what to do. I asked if Jack was still under anesthesia. I was told he was. So I asked them if they could please go ahead and euthanize him while he was still sedated. He asked if I was sure. I told him we had already decided what to do if he was inoperable. The doctor said in order to request euthanasia by phone he needed to have my decision verified by another member of staff. I was put on hold. Another staff member picked up and said how sorry she was. She then took my statement to euthanize. The doctor got back on the line. He said it was a “kind and generous” decision to put poor Jack out of his misery. He said Jack’s pain level was extremely high and that it was the right thing to do. I asked if I could have him cremated and the ashes delivered. He said he’d arrange for that. I thanked him. He told me how sorry he was about my loss. I thanked him and hung up. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. I began to cry. I cried real tears and felt an overwhelming sense of loss and helplessness. I don’t cry a lot. I get angry, or frustrated. I get depressed. Sometimes I lose control of myself momentarily. But rarely do I cry. Yet here I was, sitting on the couch still holding the phone, lost in my own grief. My wife had come into the room, mid-phone call. I’m sure it was obvious to her what had just happened. When I could finally get it together enough to speak, all I could manage to say was: “It’s cancer.” I felt like a fat wretched old man, dissolved in tears, not knowing what to do next. I felt like I had failed Jack, even though I knew I hadn’t. Why did it have to be cancer? That ignorant mass that lives just to kill it’s host, which guarantees its own destruction. God dammit. Jack was with us from July until December. In those six short months this little lost soul became a part of my pack, and therefore, a part of my family. I’ll never know where he came from or who his owners were. I’ll never know the circumstances that brought him to my campground on that 4th of July evening. Or why no one seemed to be looking for him. I miss him every time I feed the dogs and put out four bowls instead of five. I miss him every time it thunders and he’s not there looking for a lap to sit in. I miss the way he’d look to me when he was lost, when he was happy and when he was suffering. I hope he knew how much we cared about him and how we tried to make his last few months the best they could be. I won’t forget him. I hope if there’s an afterlife, there will be dogs.

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The Dance of Death and John Fahey, a book review

So much mythology exists about John Fahey. Most is of his own making. To sort through the life of this true American original is a daunting task at best. Steve Lowenthal’s new book “The Dance of Death: the Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist” represents the best effort to date at making sense of the life of a man who constantly defied sense and logic.

Writing a biography takes a point of view. Everybody has an opinion, even biographers. Unfortunately, they run the risk of “liking” their subject too much. This can lead to certain conclusions being drawn that may have been best left to the reader. This may be the main fault with this particular biography. Lowenthal does not put Fahey on a pedestal. Far from it. Fahey is presented fairly, warts and all. Fahey’s particular brand of insanity seems to have been the fuel for his creative output all of his adult life. And this fuel was the high-octane stuff! We have terms and diagnosis today that did not exist in Fahey’s lifetime.

However, insanity isn’t a symptom of genius. Had Fahey never touched a guitar, he would have mostly likely found himself among the scores of walking wounded that decorate the urban landscape. It’s too easy to draw the conclusion that his madness was somehow tied to his genius, that he was in a world that the rest of us mere mortals will never know. It is that point of view that colors this biography, more often than not, to its detriment.

There are also countless other points of view that are contained in this biography from friends, colleagues and family. Some are informative. Others are laughable. At one point, an ex wife of Fahey (I think, I might be wrong) said something to the effect of “I’d like to find these doctors that killed John Fahey” by prescribing him all kinds of drugs. Fahey was a guy who never took care of himself. He may not even have had the ability. He ate, drank, smoked and medicated himself with suicidal abandon. To blame doctors for his death is nonsense.

The author also spends some time bemoaning Fahey’s lack of commercial success. This is an issue that never seemed to bother Fahey. At one point, Lowenthal even goes as far as surmising that Fahey was jealous of the success of bands like Canned Heat and Country Joe and the Fish. He also postulates that Fahey’s revulsion to the New Age genre was due to Windam Hill’s soaring record sales as opposed to his own Takoma label. These seem to be a reckless conclusions made by someone with a true lack of understanding of Fahey’s own point of view. Fahey never seemed deterred by a lack of public approval or financial support. In fact, he seemed to thrive on disappointing his public’s expectations and doing the very things that would challenge and even offend the people that listened to him or could help him financially. Fahey surely measured his success very differently than the author.

It would have been nice to have heard a little more about the instruments Fahey played. His Bacon & Day, his Recording King, his string of pawnshop Martins and the electric instruments. It’s a safe bet that a large percentage of readers will also be guitar players who would be genuinely interested in hearing more about these iconic instruments.

Fahey is a tough nut for any biographer to crack. I hope this is the first of more from others who find this man so fascinating. I’d like to hear this story from the point of view of a guitar player.

One point Lowenthal makes is quite insightful. Truman Capote once said “When God gives a gift, He also gives a whip. The whip is for self flagellation.” Fahey’s life and difficulties sometimes had the mark of a flagellant’s zeal. There was sometimes the stink of the martyr about him and his life. It’s an interesting thought that Lowenthal presents.

Still, this book is a great first step in unpacking the myth of John Fahey. It’s a must read for Fahey fans. I hope this book does well and encourages others to do more research into this unique artist’s life. Well done

‘deviant forms of religion’

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It’s hard not to like Pope Francis. He’s seen as the straight talking, poverty walking antidote to his predecessors, who were widely condemned for their conservative belief in church doctrine. He’s the first pope in my lifetime to receive favorable reviews from those who have no use for religion. Francis is a bridge building, house cleaning pope for the ages. It’s hard not to like the guy.

That being said , Pope Francis recently denounced “the religious fundamentalism that inspired the Paris massacres and ongoing Mideast conflicts,” saying “the attackers were enslaved by ‘deviant forms of religion’ that used God as a mere ideological pretext to perpetuate mass killing”, as reported by Fox News. Take a minute for that to sink in.

Although I believe I understand and may even agree with his sentiments, I question the wisdom of any pope condemning “deviant forms of religion”. Especially in the context of Islam. In any discussion with a supporter of Islam about the use of terror, one does not have to wait very long to be reminded of the Roman Catholic Crusades of 11th century and Inquisitions of the 13th and 16th centuries. In these historical cases, the Mother Church appeared to be using “God as a mere ideological pretext to perpetuate mass killing”. The mass killings of whom? Those who practiced “deviant forms of religion”. Heretics, for lack of a better word. It has an unfortunate ring of familiarity about it, in light of what we hear coming from the more radical imams today.

Perhaps the answer to “deviant forms of religion” isn’t more religion. Perhaps the answer is for Christians and Jews and Muslims to get their own ideological houses in order and spare the rest of us a trip back to Dark Ages. Why should we be discussing beheadings and stonings and ‘holy war’ and ‘deviant forms of religion’ in the 21st century. It’s an insult to the civilized world.

Still, it’s hard not to like Pope Francis.

Civilization today.

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In light of the execution of 12 in Paris for the crime of publishing cartoons that lampoon religion, I’m left with the following question: what should be the response of civilized people? After unspeakable acts of violence and terror, carefully catalogued in the name of Allah, what is a reasonable response? There will be grim faced condemnations from the leaders of the civilized world, as there were after the beheading of journalists, the butchering of rabbis at prayer and the stoning of undesirables. Are tersely worded statements a reasonable response? Should we continue to allow an ideology to stifle debate in our universities, edit our news and demand our acquiescence under the threat of violence?

How long will I be able to even ask a question like this?

This recent terror episode ended the way everyone expected it would. The prophet Muhammad has three glorious new martyrs and has had his honor restored from the insult of some French cartoonists. Left in the wake are the bodies of those unfortunate enough to have been in the way and the security of a nation is shaken to its core. All that’s left is for the pundits to sort it all out. Then we can once again safely return our collective attention to Kim Kardasian’s ass. I fear this will be the response of civilized people.

Until the next time. And the time after that.