Monday, November 20, 2006

Death: Lessons Tougher Than Life

You may remember "Tex," the Giant Schnauzer from last week's blog. She made it to Phoenix, Arizona, after her owner came down with an unfortunate bout of cancer, one she will not survive.

Tex, whose name we changed to "Tess," if only because she is a she, had a lot to tell me about life. Which left her former owner whom I visited this week. I hoped she might teach me a thing or two about death that I might share with you.

It was a good idea, but no cigar. Like most dying people I have visited, there was no talk of death. It was like it is not happening. It was like it will never happen.

"How are you?"

"I've been better."

That's as close as it came.

Maybe that's why I spend most of my free time with animals. Dogs are honest.

But there are exceptions. There are a few of us humans who can deal with that most uncomfortable subject -- our impending "dirt naps."

Art Buchwald, the Pulitzer prize-winning columnist is (or at least was) dying of kidney failure. He had his leg amputated to extend his life and was admitted into hospice where he didn't cooperate -- he refused to die. Instead he wrote book about dying where we can find a few lessons about credibly connecting with that we will all face, and soon.

Here are some of his observations worth considering . . .

“It’s amazing how many people visit you if you’re in a convenient location and they’ve been told you’re going to die.”

“People love talking to somebody who isn’t afraid to discuss death, as a matter of fact some of them have such a good time they come back again.”

“Dying is easy, parking is impossible.”

“I have no idea where I’m going, but here is the real question: what am I doing here in the first-place.”

Art was funny in life and he is funny as he approaches death. And he is funny because he is comfortable talking about that which is uncomfortable. We should all be so connected to the past, present, and future, even if it is a future we know nothing about.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Life Lessons from a Giant Schnauzer

My name is “Tex,” at least that is what my Mother called me, which always seemed strange since I am a girl. Mom bought me when I was a pup and raised me alone until I was two years old. That’s when she decided I a needed a playmate and rescued Galliano from the streets. “Galli” (that’s what I call him) is a beautiful boy with a good soul and I never told Mom that I never considered him a playmate but have always thought of him as my brother even though we look nothing alike.

After Mom got sick about a year ago, she couldn’t walk us anymore and that was hard on Galli who has a lot of energy. She couldn’t let him outside and, other than me, has had no contact with other animals, except Mom, of course, who has loved us and cared for us as best as she could.

They took Mom away yesterday. The men said she had to go to a nursing home, someplace we are not allowed. They told us Mom had something called “cancer,” and that she would die soon. Galli doesn’t understand what that means but I do. It means we won’t have Mom to care for us anymore and we won’t be able to give Mom the loves she needs. We wanted to go with her and we both leapt at the fence as they put Mom into an ambulance and we both cried as the spinning red lights disappeared into the morning mist.

They say I am next to go. It seems a lot of families up north want dogs of my breed that they call Giant Schnauzer. I have always thought of breed as being a funny concept since I just think of myself as a dog. In fact, all dogs I know feel the same. We know we look different but we can’t figure out why that is important to some humans. They say Galli is a beautiful blonde mix of Golden Retriever and Yellow Labrador. To me he is my brother.

Like most dogs, I rarely worry. But today I do worry for Galli. Since Mom got sick, I have been more like Galli’s Mom and he can’t stand to be away from me for more than a few minutes. I know that I am going to get a loving home but I am not so sure about my brother. I so wish we could go together and run and play forever! But I know that is not going to happen.

I met some humans yesterday, Kelly and Jim, and they promised me that Galli would get a good home. They have lots of experience in finding good homes for good dogs and I believe them. But, I know that when I am taken away that he will cry and I will, too. Because something else most humans don’t understand is that we dogs have feelings; we hurt; we laugh, and we love – unconditionally.

The above is as close as I recall to what I heard Tex tell me this past weekend and with tears streaming down my face as I write this we vow to find Galli the home his sister wants for him. And, as I think of all of the life’s lessons I have learned, none are more important than those I have learned from our relationships, our credible connections, with the animals.

From my brief walk with Tex yesterday, I am reminded that . . .

- Family is important and nothing is important enough to come between us. Grab on to the ones you love and hold them tight.

- Live each day as if your loved ones are leaving tomorrow if only because they may be.

- Your playmates are really your brothers and sisters who look different than you. Treat them like family.

- Breeds, colors, and sizes don’t matter. It is what is on the inside that counts.

- We are all dying, a few of us quicker than others. Don’t live like you will live forever – you won’t.

- Be present. Don’t worry. And even though fear will slip into your life from time to time, in most cases there is nothing worth worrying about.

- Most humans (and all dogs) are good and decent. A few of them you can even count on to do what they have promised to do.

- Cry. It is good for the soul. Laughter is, too.

- Loving – well, loving is the soul.

Epilog: We took Galli yesterday to her new home – a beautiful ranch in the foothills of San Miguel de Allende, a place with lots of green grass, a new mom, and a girlfriend named Nugget. As for Tex, Kelly and I left home at 4 this morning to take her to the airport for her flight to Phoenix via Albuquerque. She will stay with wonderful friends in rescue in Albuquerque for a few days until she is transported to the Giant Schnauzer rescue in Phoenix. She will only be there for a few days, for you see they have already received three applications from people who want to give Tex her forever home. Which is the last lesson of this adventure – sometimes you don’t know why things work out, but like Galli and Tex, give someone a big hug and kiss when they do.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

What Americans Should Expect From This Election

For reasons known only to the gods of technology, my blog last week from election night failed to make it to most subscribers. Thus, I am sending again. If you are receiving this a second time, my apologies. If you are not receiving my blog regularly, please check your "Junk Mail" folder and if you find it there, make the change in your e-mail program so that it will not be labeled as "Junk."

San Miguel de Allende. It is a few minutes after 8 p.m. in this high desert town in central Mexico. I listen and I can tell there is not much happening on the streets tonight. Locals and expatriates alike are glued to their televisions. What happens in the United States affects the world and everyone knows it.

Even this early in the evening, the television behind me projects the House of Representatives will be turned over to the Democrats. The Senate is still too close to call.

The issue? The war. And as I sit here, I cannot help but reflect on a night in 1967 when I was glued to another television set watching the Tet Offensive unfold in Vietnam – a war that had no end in sight but that ended the political career of Lyndon Johnson. I wonder whether any of the newscasters will make that comparison and will recall that the “winner” of the 1968 election was Richard Nixon who told an entire nation that "had a plan to end the Vietnam War." Unfortunately, no plan existed and America would continue to fight and die for another five years. Nixon's sell ultimately became not victory but for enough time to build up the strength of the South Vietnamese armed forces so that they could defend their nation without American support -- what became known as the "Nixon Doctrine." It all sounds too familiar and in Nixon's case it was a dismal failure. In April 1975, Saigon fell and the war was over. Over 50,000 Americans had perished.

Whether Iraq ends differently will depend on many factors, including the outcome of tonight’s election and most Americans know it.

But Iraq is not the only conflict that will decide this election. As in the late-60’s, America confronts more than an unpopular war. There is an economic malaise among the general public that is palpable. As the economic tide has benefited the wealthiest Americans, there is an ever-widening income inequality, with the average American worker making less on an inflation-adjusted basis than he or she did six years ago. And depending on whose numbers you use, the average American worker has not received a raise above inflation since 1989.

San Francisco Federal Reserve President Janet Yellen observed this week that "[income] inequality has risen to the point that it seems worthwhile for the U.S. to seriously consider taking the risk of making our economy more rewarding for more of the people." She identified factors contributing to "feelings of discontent" among Americans, to include job instability, and the "dire consequences" of job loss.

In simpler terms, Joe Lunchbucket doesn’t understand what the economic “hoorays” are all about – he isn’t feeling the benefits of a rising stock market if only because he has no stock. What he does feel is the sting of the rising cost of medical care, gasoline, and college tuition. He worries if his factory will be the next to close. She worries about who will feed the family.

Tonight is indeed a referendum on the war but it is likewise a vote from the pocketbook of middle class America, and regardless of who wins there will be an expectation that there is a plan to deal with both problems – something more than another “Nixon Doctrine.”

Friday, November 03, 2006

Comparison As A Path to Satisfaction

The news today was, well, more of the same.

The politicians are fighting over power. The most dangerous drug in America - testosterone - is present and accounted for.

The rich are fighting over money. This week's contestants are Paul McCartney and his estranged wife who answered the question Paul asked 40 years ago -- "will you still love me when I'm 64?"

The famous are still divorcing in droves. This week it was Reese Witherspoon and her hubby, coming off Oscar highs and slamming into the wall of "it ain't working anymore" like Mr. Magoo playing Jai-alai.

New studies report that working people dislike their work and their jobs more than ever before, continuing the death spiral of employee morale that began 10 years ago. Work has become, for most, what you do so one day you don't have to do it anymore.

Sometimes I wonder whether the powerful, the rich, the famous, and even the regular folk know how good we've got it. Most don't. Otherwise the rich would figure out how much they need to maintain their opulent lifestyles and not fight over the rest. The famous would put their egos on hold long enough to understand fame might get you a good table in an upscale L.A. restaurant, but not much more. And the wage worker would figure out that the hucksters who spend billions selling him on the idea that he would be happier driving a new car every year and that he should be ashamed that his TV doesn't hang on the wall are, well, liars.

But today's real news wasn't Paul or Reese or even the desperation of the average American employee. Rather, it was the 850 million people who will go to bed tonight hungry, not because they are dieting but because they are starving. What they get most of is our pity. What they need most of is our help, and ironically, we need them. Experience leads me to believe that we would all be more satisfied if we spent more time with those who are suffering. If we each took the opportunity to see poverty and powerlessness up close and personal, the contrast would be too dramatic to wallow in self-pity or get too serious about the stock market or some silly game on television.

There are more than enough visuals to go around. The Food and Agricultural Organization reported today that the world has made "virtually no progress" in eradicating hunger over the past decade despite greater wealth. Indeed, 26 million more people were malnourished between 1995-97 and 2001-03, a dark reality when one considers the 1980s had seen a decrease of 100 million starving people. The FAO laments the "hunger-poverty trap," observing that hunger is not only a consequence of poverty but also one of its causes, because it "compromises the health and productivity of individuals and their efforts to escape poverty."

Take a moment and onsider what would the world be like if Paul, and Reese, and Joe Lunchbucket were given the "opportunity" to see poverty and powerlessness and asked to do something about it -- something more than write a check. Would there be room left for the acrimony and bitterness that is regularly spent protecting money and ego and buying gemcracks and trinkets?

I think not. And to the end of providing employees experiences they need, more employers should involve them with real victims. Perhaps it is no more than offering a day's pay to work at a battered women's clinic, an animal shelter, a school where without government sponsored lunches there would be hunger, or one of the myriad of other opportunities there are to see a world kept conveniently hidden for those who choose not to look. If employers were serious about improved morale, this is one option that takes little time or money. And, for the individual, rich or poor, such experiences help us understand that most of our worries come from forgetting the game is just a game; that our anger is nothing more than wasted moments of a fragile life fretting over that which doesn't matter; and that our forever struggle for more is a sad and ultimately doomed effort.

I recall a client a few years ago who took this advice and offered their employees a day of pay each quarter if they would work that day at a children's camp for the profoundly retarded. One particularly gruff and curmudgeonly employee left as a cynic and returned with a new appreciation for life, not just because he suddenly saw a contrast that made his own life look better, but more importantly, he discovered that satisfaction could never be found in tryng to satiate his own ever-increasing desires, but only in fulfilling others' needs. That is why he never stopped going to that camp, first on company time and then on his own. He had come to understand that he needed the children as much as they needed him.