Sunday, June 30, 2019

Walking the Dogs

My children are away on an end-of-school road trip, so I’m alone with the dogs. We’re enjoying the routine of our daily walks together.

Of course, having the kids around wouldn't alter the dog walking situation. I’m the only one who ever walks Bear and Buster. As with anything involving the outdoors, my children respond to the prospect of walking their dogs with wailing and gnashing of teeth. 

Obviously if we make it out the door everyone would have a perfectly lovely time. But as the First Law of Parenting says, “pick your battles.”

Besides, I like being the designated dog walker. I enjoy leisurely wandering through Bellingham. It only makes the dogs love me even more. Regular walks are the perfect Guncle move.  

The dogs and I will miss the children. Eventually.

In my previous incarnation as a fabulous gay uncle, I ostentatiously refused to learn how to change a diaper. That’s a task for parents. However, after living with teenagers, I have to warn prospective parents that diaper changing is the least of your worries. 

So when I began guncling a pair of Aussiedoodles, I was fine with picking up pooper scooper skills. Of course, if the kids were here I’d make them clean up after their dogs.   

In general Bear is mellow, and Buster is the rambunctious one. But not when it comes to bodily functions. Bear insists on raising his leg like a ballerina as we approach each prominent rock, tree, or fire hydrant. Then as soon as we’ve reached the maximum distance from a garbage can and it’s time to poop, everyone for miles knows exactly what Bear is doing. Drama queen.

In contrast, I’ve never seen Buster publicly urinate. For our first few walks, I also thought Buster was constipated. But then I realized he’s a stealth pooper – slowing down to a trot and casually flinging his waste along the wayside, like a redneck in a pickup truck littering on the highway.

We live at the top of one Bellingham’s many hills. Rather than end every walk with the same sweaty climb, this week the dogs and I have been hopping in the minivan and exploring Bellingham’s amazing network of trails.

Bellingham also has a couple of friendly off-leash parks. However, they’re wasted on Bear and Buster. After tiring themselves out with some initial wind sprints, all they want to do is herd me around the park. I guess that’s their Australian shepherd heritage. Even when they’re back on the double leash, Buster frequently looks back to make sure I’m still holding the other end.

Bear and Buster also think they’re hunting dogs. They’re constantly distracted by mysterious smells. But as I was telling the dogs on one of our walks last week, no matter how good they taste or smell, Twinkies are bad for you.

When the dogs are too muddy to ride in the minivan, but we’re not in the mood for a steep hike up the hill, we have the choice among three gentle hilltop routes: forest trails in the arboretum; shopping for Victorian mansions on South Hill; or walking across campus to the park. 

If this were a democracy, Bear and Buster would always pick the campus route. They’re social animals, preferring people to nature. Conversely, not everyone likes dogs, but most people like these dogs. Folks are always asking about their breed, or admiring Bear’s mismatched husky eyes. Strangers want to pet them, and Bear and Buster will always oblige. (They’re the worse guard dogs.)

Yesterday a dad suggested I get a skateboard and let them pull me. Today on the boardwalk an elderly lady exclaimed “They’re the happiest ones out here!” But my favorite endorsement this week was the little boy who excitedly told his grandpa, “I want 100 dogs like them, and one Dalmatian!”

The best thing about walking Bear and Buster is that everyone we encounter is smiling at us. Yes, I know they’re not smiling at me. But they’re smiling at us – and at everyone else for a little while. Surely that makes the world a slightly better place.

Have you watched Amazon Prime’s new adaption of Good Omens? The 1990 novel, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, is a family favorite. The TV series is fun and true to the book, with David Tennant playing the ambivalent demon Crowley, and Michael Shannon playing the fussy angel Aziraphale.

Good Omens is the story of how the Apocalypse gets derailed when the Spawn of Satan is accidentally switched at birth. Instead of being raised surrounded by demonic power, he grows up in an idyllic English village. 

One of Good Omens’ minor characters is Ronald P. Tyler, the cranky founder of the village’s Neighbourhood Watch. The Good Omens Lexicon fan site includes the following description of R. P. Tyler:

In his life, there are no moral greys, and he feels obliged to tell the world about the difference between right and wrong. His chosen forum is “the letter column of the Tadfield Advertiser,” which can no longer print all the letters he sends. After “composing a lengthy mental letter on the failings of the youth today,” he has an ambition of getting published in The Times.

While out walking his wife’s poodle Shutzi one fateful night, Mr. Tyler runs into demons, angels, witch-hunters, and all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, each asking for directions to Armageddon. An increasingly disgruntled R.P. Tyler mentally composes increasingly indignant letters to the editor.

As Pavlov would have predicted, the dogs now begin demanding a walk as soon as they finish their breakfast. I’ve had to be firm with them. I explained that we’re not allowed to go outside until I finish my work. (With the kids gone, I’ve been talking to Bear and Buster; it’s nice to be around someone who listens to me for a change.)

As we begin our walks, I’m often still stewing over some lawyerly letter, or another futile job application, or a Machiavellian public records request. I’ve turned into cranky R.P. Tyler from Good Omens as he walks Shutzi – writing letters in my head in response to each indignation.

Fortunately, Bear and Buster refuse to put up with lawyer talk. We check out the sailboats, and smell things, and talk to the friendly people along the trail. Eventually cheerful essays write themselves in my head as we walk. Like this one.


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Gilded Mormon Lilies

A few weeks ago I posted an essay, “Crazy Mormon Mommy Bloggers,” about Ex-Mormon Single Parents Who Write About Mental Illness Because Someone Fucking Has To.

Actually my post was about the recently published book The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times To Live, by longtime “Mommy Blogger” Heather B. Armstrong. Like me, Heather grew up Mormon but left the church after graduating from Brigham Young University. She is famous for candidly and profanely writing about what others might consider to be very personal topics, including relationships, child-rearing, body image, and mental illness. 

In my essay, I likened various aspects of Heather’s excellent book about depression to my own experiences. Like Heather, I could easily be accused of narcissism, or at least self-absorption. However, as young Mormons, that’s what we were taught God wanted us to do. Heather and I learned this approach in Seminary:  “Like Unto Us.” It was a Mormon youth curriculum about applying the lessons from scripture stories to our daily lives, with a soundtrack of hip contemporary music.

In Denver with Gram, Rosalind, Eleanor, and my Uncle Dennis

I didn’t attempt to document every connection between Heather’s story and my own. “Crazy Mormon Mommy Bloggers” was already too long – particularly because the essay was also intended to be a belated Mother’s Day tribute to my maternal grandmother, just as The Valedictorian of Being Dead was both a chronicle of severe depression and a tribute to Heather’s longsuffering Mormon mother.

I left out numerous other parallels. For example, when Heather came home from college with signs of depression and her mother sent her to the doctor, “He prescribed me an average dose of Zoloft and within three days my roommates began to tell me that something was different, something was strange. Strange in a good way.” Heather’s roommates recognized the difference because she “stopped slamming doors.”

Here’s what I wrote earlier this year in “Breaking the Glass” about my experience when my doctor prescribed Zoloft:

How did I know when the medications kicked in? I like to compare it to cartoon dynamite. The most alarming effect of amped-up stress had been on my temper around the kids. Every little mess was making me uncharacteristically angry. 

On medication, my fuse feels a few inches longer. Just enough to avoid explosions.

Heather's first book was about her experience with post-partum depression after her elder daughter’s birth. In The Valedictorian of Being Dead, she describes how experimental treatments at the University of Utah Medical Center helped her emerge from eighteen months of severe drug-resistant depression. Heather also discusses her lifelong struggle with anxiety.

Like Heather, I’ve written about anxiety and depression. But three years ago my healthcare providers recognized that traumas in my Mormon youth had resulted in PTSD as well as codependency, which is a deeply rooted compulsive behavior usually caused by dysfunctional family systems.

Heather never mentions PTSD or codependency. On the other hand, I was struck by this observation:

             I had a very colorful history of suppressing my needs and desires in my relationships with men. It’s the reason my marriage ended. I lived inside a prison that I’d built as a defense mechanism.

Perhaps Heather should check out some of the literature from Codependents Anonymous.

While writing “Crazy Mormon Mommy Bloggers,” I couldn’t open the can of worms where Heather keeps her relationships with men. It’s not merely that she acknowledges daddy issues that I don’t relate to. More importantly, I wasn’t ready to tackle a subject I do relate to – coping with mental illness as a single parent.

At the outset of The Valedictorian of Being Dead, Heather confesses with her customary frankness the reason why she delayed seeking treatment for her severe depression:  she was afraid her ex-husband "will try to take away my kids if he knows I’m this depressed.”

As her psychiatrist gently pointed out, the fear itself was a symptom of depression. But it reminded me how grateful I am that my ex and I have maintained an amicable co-parenting relationship focused on the best interests of the children. This year we’ve even experimented successfully with the kids staying in the big house full time, with each father living with them alternate weeks. (We're not going to go full cliché lesbian and all move in together, however.)

After the Armstrongs separated, Heather’s husband Jon moved to New York. The girls stayed in Utah with Heather and their extended family. Co-parenting is much more of a challenge when you’re 2000 miles away – I barely survived eight months alone with the kids in Seattle after my ex and his husband were the first to move ninety miles north to Bellingham. 

In contrast with her blistering candor about other family members, Heather doesn’t criticize her ex. Instead she presents her own point of view about what she feared might happen, rather than an assessment of what kind of father Jon is. I didn’t discuss the scared single parent aspect of Heather’s story in my original post because there wasn’t room. And because, like Heather, I recognized there was another side to the story, as well as kids to protect.

Sometime around when Heather got divorced and I separated from my ex, I realized her husband Jon is the same “Jon Armstrong” I went to high school with in Brigham City. Jon and I are friends on Facebook. In fact, the picture of Heather and Jon’s daughters illustrating “Crazy Mormon Mommy Bloggers” came from Jon’s Facebook page.

I couldn't bring myself to mention this connection in my original blog post. Wouldn't it be one too many implausible coincidences for responsible nonfiction writing?

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Eleanor's Greatest Hits

Fourteen years ago, we caught the last ferry from Whidbey Island and rushed to the hospital on the mainland. Eight hours later I watched as my daughter Eleanor was born. My formerly fabulous gay life hasn’t been the same since. 

The character "Eleanor" already has a starring role in these blog essays. Happy birthday to the marvelous and very real young woman. 

Love, Papa


"Adoption Stories: Flying the Friendly Skies"" (12/2/18)

"Adoption Stories: Reflux" (9/9/17)

"Organ Donors: The Movie" (3/17/19)

"Pioneer Children Sang as they Walked, and Walked...." (7/10/170

"Prior Restraint" (4/3/19)

"Adoption Stories: How Eleanor Got Her Middle Name" (12/13/18)

"Adoption Stories: How Oliver Got His Name" (3/3/18)

"Secured Transactions" (8/16/18)

"Family Directions" (7/7/17)

"Growing Up with the Chorus" (11/14/18)

"High School Musicals" (11/28/18)

"JWTYHCOCYO...The Teen Years" (7/21/18)

"Puberty So Far: An Update" (7/12/18)

"Dr. Practical" (6/12/19)

"Hyphenation, or How Eleanor Got Her Name" (8/26/21)


Happy Birthday
Love Papa

"Puberty So Far" (7/20/17)