We Can Vote

I was sad when I saw the video of the woman in Central Park. How could someone who looks just like me use our privilege to intimidate? Then, a week later, when I saw the George Floyd video, I cried. I cried on and off for a good twenty-four hours. And I gave myself permission to do it. It’s okay to feel sad. Who wouldn’t?

Then, I thought about what I can do. What can a middle-class white woman do to help change racism? First and foremost,  I’ll vote. I’ll cast my ballot in a red county where it won’t even matter but I WILL VOTE. I’ll sign petitions and protest peacefully. I will spend my money on organizations and products that support black lives. Lastly, I will educate myself, recognize my own inner racism, and work to undo a lifetime of white conditioning. Because if we can’t even respect each other, what chance do we have of respecting animals?

Metallica and The Dog Family: What’s In a Nickname

A couple years ago I saw a young boy, about ten, sitting on the lawn outside his home. His dirty blond hair hung to his waist. He was working on his skateboard and jamming to Metallica, Enter the Sandman to be exact. The song played from an old-school boom box resting on the porch, so it was loud, and I instantly recognized it.

Looking at that young kid listening to that music, my music, it suddenly hit me that the tunes I grew up on are now considered classic rock. It was one of those painful moments when I realized time keeps churning forward, even if I don’t feel any older. From then on, I called that kid Metallica. It never occurred to me for a single second he had a nickname for us too.

It didn’t occur to me because Metallica normally makes a habit out of ignoring us. We see the boy around town a lot. Mostly we spot him skating in parking lots, but we’ve also passed him at the grocery store, a local bar-b-q joint, and the dog park. We see him so much that I know his dog’s name, Big Mac, 100 pounds of pure mutt. On average, we probably see Metallica and his family three times a week, more since quarantine.

In the beginning, I had tried acknowledging him with a wave or a hello, but he always blew me off. By the fifth time, I gave up trying. And yes, I was offended. I was offended because every snub reminded me of how old and uncool I felt on the day I nicknamed him.

Over the past couple of years, our relationship morphed into one of mutual indifference, the kind that can only exist between a middle-aged woman who doesn’t have or understand kids and a young boy on the verge of becoming a teenager. And it remained that way until a few days ago.

Don’t get me wrong. There were signs of interest. Metallica can’t make that much of an effort of ignoring us if he didn’t care at all. When he lands a solid ollie or a kickflip, I’ll catch him glancing my way, just a glance but he wants to know I saw. And he should be proud. He’s good. In any major city, he might be competitive. But we don’t even have a skate park in Springfield, let alone anyone near his level.

Then, last weekend we were walking our four dogs past his house. It was the first hot afternoon of spring, so our pace was slower than normal. His mom sat on the porch reading a book. Big Mac snoozed by her feet, and Metallica sat on the hood of his family’s Honda.

His hair hung in a low-riding ponytail, so I could clearly see his ear buds. His foot bounced to whatever beat he listened to. I’d bet 100 bucks it was heavy metal. His skateboard rested on the lawn and four decks were scattered around it. Each one looked more beat up than the last. Big Mac saw us, stood, and started barking his customary gruff hello.

“It’s the Dog Family,” Metallica told his mom.

It took me a second to process his words. For one, I felt honored. There’s no other nickname I’d rather. The Dog Family. It fits us. More importantly, it was the first time Metallica ever acknowledged my existence. Beyond that, I swear I heard tenderness in his voice. That little aloof shit cared enough to give us a nickname. Somehow, it made me feel a little less middle-aged, a little less uncool.

His mom must have noticed the huge smile I couldn’t hide.

“The Dog Family. That’s what he calls you,” she said.

I glanced at Metallica, and he smiled right back. It only lasted a second, but it was there.

Outside of Language

I run a fine-toothed brush from Adriana’s ruff to tail over and over, pulling out handfuls of short white hairs with every stroke. Ade sits between my legs on the porch. She stretches her shiny pink nose towards the sun so that I can reach under her neck. It’s her sweet spot. Around us, a breeze ruffles, birds tweet, squirrels bicker, a hawk screeches. The countryside isn’t quiet. But, it is peaceful because like my dogs nature exists outside of language. And right now, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

Woods surround our house on three sides. A two-lane country road runs in front. Across the street, ragweed, thistle, and wildflowers bloom in an empty field. We can see our closest neighbor’s house during the winter, but in late spring the foliage grows as thick as it does in a rainforest. I never knew so many shades of green existed until I moved to rural Tennessee. Sometimes, it feels like we live in a green cocoon.

Since quarantine, I’ve been brushing the dogs more than ever. One, it gives me a sense of accomplishment. Every stroke yields results. But more importantly, being outside with my dogs is one of the only spaces where I can escape language, where I can escape the overwhelming clatter of current events. A recent BBC article said in utopia newspapers wouldn’t sell very well. Lately, I’ve been reminding myself of that fact a lot.

Ade’s eyes grow heavy. I can’t blame her. We just finished our four-mile walk. She fights it, struggling to stay awake because she wants to feel the sensation of being brushed, the sensation of warm sunshine. She wants to smell that breeze with its hint of wild honeysuckle. Eventually, she can’t resist any longer and sinks onto the deck. She communicates all of this to me without using a single word. With Ade and I, words never interfere. And without words lying is impossible.

In Euphoria, Lily King calls language an unreliable sense, and I couldn’t agree more. For a society that preaches actions speak louder than words, we often do the exact opposite. But it’s never that way with my dogs. In their world, actions are all that matter, and honesty is one the byproducts.

I’ve tried to lie to Ade before. On days I’m leaving for a work trip, I pull out my luggage, pack it, and drag it to the car when she is fully absorbed in a peanut butter Kong on the deck. Yet, she knows I’m leaving. She might not know when, but she knows it will happen. And her serious, sometimes anxious behavior proves it. When words disappear so does that unreliable narrator, a filter that consciously or not influences every word we use and every word we hear.

A squirrel leaps from one branch to another, whipping his tail for balance. Ade lifts her head, glances at the squirrel, then drops back down. She’s too sleepy to care about a squirrel right now, which means she’s really really tired. Her loose fur collects in tufts in the porch’s nooks and crannies. The breeze catches them. They pirouette through the air and twirl into the woods. In a few months, we’ll find these same tufts in birds’ nests. Mason once said he loves nature because it is what it is. There’s no agenda. I could say the same thing about my dogs.


Silver Linings: Gardening

Mason recently told me he wanted to rip out Mr. Pine’s stump. I wasn’t happy. Granted, stumps aren’t exactly attractive, but we’re not talking about just any stump. After a few days of negotiations, we settled on building a memorial instead.

A dry creek runs through our backyard, and fossils litter the bed. When I had first found them, I took some to a geology professor at Vanderbilt. He told me they are relics from when the ocean covered Tennessee, which means they are about four billion years old.

Now, fifty-plus of these ancient rocks circle Mr. Pine. Inside the circle we spread cedar mulch and planted a hydrangea, a red fuchsia, and two snowball bushes. We put them on opposite sides but straight across from each other like points of a compass. In a few years, their flowering branches will completely shade him but for this year I added six dahlias.

Inspired, I planted eight more dahlias in front of the house. Dahlias are such drama queens. Even after two days of soaking rain, they drooped on the first hot afternoon. I also sowed seventeen sunflower seeds along our fence line. Fifteen are two inches tall already. Adriana likes to help me water them, trotting at my heels back and forth from the fence to the hose. Unlike dahlias, sunflowers are troopers. They handled the recent cold temperatures and thunderstorms without a single complaint.

Every other spring before this one, I was working and working so much that it was a survival-of-the-fittest game in my garden. Let’s just say any plants who survived had to possess a strong independent streak. This spring is totally different. I already had the opportunity to observe every stage of our pear trees’ metamorphosis from pale pink to lime green. And I watched our dogwoods bloom so white they looked luminescent at first light.

Now, I’ll have the time to nurture my garden too. When I’m searching for silver linings during this pandemic, gardening is high on the list. This year I can feed and prune my garden weekly, water it daily, cover it when it’s cold, and protect it from pests.

This year I can watch Mr. Pine’s memorial grow and grow and grow.


The Pandemic Debate and Somewhere In-Between

Our greenway has been shut down for weeks, so we’ve been walking through town in the mornings too. Last Saturday we passed a church. From two blocks away, we saw a packed parking lot and cars wrapped around the street. Two cops were directing traffic. Springfield has been so eerily quiet that we often walk in the middle of the road, so seeing that many people caused us to pause. It looked like traffic after a drag race instead of during a pandemic. I checked the courthouse’s clock tower and it read 8:45 a.m.

As we got closer, we saw boxes of bananas, bread, and canned food stacked on folding tables. Volunteers in masks were stuffing the items into bags. It was a food bank, and hundreds of people were sitting in their cars waiting for groceries. Children waved out windows, and a few yelled “doggie.” We looped around one minivan twice because of a pigtail-wearing cutie who couldn’t stop giggling at Meadow’s goofy smile.

At the top of the hill, we stopped and talked to the cops, who told us people had already been in line when they arrived at six. It took five minutes to compose myself. That many people waiting three hours for bananas and bread hit me in the stomach with an emotional wallop. I was witnessing up close and personal the pandemic’s economic impact in my community for the first time.

After I collected myself, I realized how lucky I am. Mason and I may not be working again yet, but we’re not hungry either. Secondly, I thought about the animals. If those people were suffering, so were their dogs and cats.

A few years ago, a little boy confessed his mom dropped a litter of kittens off on a country road. At first, I was livid. Who would do something like that? Then, I saw where this little boy lived. In his house, in-door plumbing was questionable, let alone a meal including anything but nuked starch. When it comes to feeding your kids or feeding a litter of kittens, the choice is obvious. Right now, thousands of people are facing that same decision.

Mason and I have debates, always healthy but sometimes heated, about the pandemic shutdown. I think about hungry people, the mentally ill, and abandoned animals. And I wonder if the cure will be more devastating than the disease. Mason thinks about the thousands of people who died and their families. He believes it would have been much worse if our state hadn’t spent the last two months locked down.

Both of us know only time will decide. When this pandemic is finally behind us, we’ll be able to look back with clarity and truly assess the situation. My hunch is the answer lies somewhere in-between. How can we protect the vulnerable without putting millions and millions of people out of work?

Tiger King: For-Profit Zoos

Multiple people asked how I felt about the Tiger King documentary. My answer isn’t simple. Was the Tiger King entertaining TV? Absolutely. A documentarian couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic storyline. Concerning character, every person was more outrageous than the last. But when I viewed it the second time, when the shock value lost its impact, I felt incredibly sorry for all those tigers.

The Tiger King also reminded me of an experience I’d rather forget, an experience that proved big cats aren’t the only wild animals exploited for money. Four years ago, Mason surprised me with a trip to a wolf sanctuary outside Denver, CO. The sanctuary boasted it rescued animals who had been hurt or abandoned in nature and even some from movie sets. They used their wolves for educational purposes since they could never be reintegrated in the wild.

Mason had paid extra so we could sit with the wolves, which also meant a private tour around the premises. He justified the exorbitant cost with an “it’s going to a good cause” reasoning. I didn’t argue because I agreed. Besides, I was going to learn all about wolves. Hell, I was about to touch one. Since I consider a wolf my spirit animal, I was beyond excited.

I had butterflies during the whole hour it took us to drive there from our hotel, but that excitement didn’t last long. As soon as we arrived, something felt off kilter. Back then, private zoos weren’t on my radar, so I couldn’t name what felt weird but something wasn’t right.

For one thing, we never met the woman who ran the sanctuary. She lived on the premises in a giant Swiss-chalet house that looked more like a ski lodge than a home. I remember wondering if she was independently wealthy or was rescuing wolves really that lucrative?

Two women in their early twenties gave us the tour. They were both volunteers and absurdly attractive, like six-feet tall and willowy with perfect bone structure. Our tour lasted thirty minutes, and our guides didn’t offer a single tidbit of knowledge about the wolves. Finally, I started asking questions. I asked a dozen before I realized they didn’t know the answers. They didn’t know about size, diet, lifespan, shedding, howling, mating, or hunting habits.

They did answer one question though. When I asked where they found the wolves, they said breeders in Idaho. They explained wolves can only be around people if they are raised that way. They rescued two of the eighteen animals on the premises. And yes, one had appeared as an extra in a movie but they didn’t know which flick or when. The sanctuary had purchased the rest. I wanted to leave from that moment forward. I felt dirty, dirty about everything from traveling all that way to paying them so that we could touch a wolf.

And we did touch a wolf. We touched three. On the surface, I had no reason to feel bad. The wolves acted friendly, happy to sit while I stroked their enormous paws. They lived in decent enclosures, not big enough but not claustrophobic either. Their coats and weight even looked healthy.

But a fog of guilt hung around me the whole time I sat next to those huge, beautiful animals. I couldn’t forget about the fact that they would never be free. They would never know the feeling of running wide open across a grassy field. Instead, they’d spend their lives behind bars so people like us could touch them.

I didn’t share my feelings until we left Colorado. When I did, the disappointment on Mason’s face would have explained why I waited so long to tell him. He had tried so hard to surprise me with an once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I kissed him, thanked him for his good intentions.  We promised we’d never pay to see a wild animal again, unless it’s in their backyard and not ours.

Four years later, we watched the Tiger King, and I realized that sanctuary was just like Exotic Joe’s zoo, only instead of exploiting big cats they were exploiting wolves. When I think about our experience in Denver, I can’t help but consider the ethical line between exploiting animals for profit versus using them to raise money for good work. And I’m not the only one thinking about it.

Animal lovers across the globe are having this same conversation, and I’m sure they had it long before they met Exotic Joe or Carol Baskin. Most recently, I heard it in Costa Rica when I was volunteering for a sea turtle conservancy group. The biologists and management were debating catching a turtle for a fundraising event.

The biologists didn’t want to cause undue stress on the turtle, but management knew without funds nobody gets to save them. The ethical line between exploitation and good work often blurs, even for the most reputable organizations, and and sometimes that ambiguous zone is necessary. It’s necessary because it allows good work to continue.

That clearly wasn’t the case at Joe Exotic’s or at the wolf sanctuary. There was no ambiguity about their motives. They kept wild animals in cages for money. Until we stop paying to see these animals at for-profit zoos, they will continue to exist.

One of my favorite film critics said by the time she finished watching the Tiger King, she wanted everybody to get eaten by a tiger. I feel the same way about that wolf sanctuary.