Oh, baby. What a dog.

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, June 26, 2013 12:37 AM

I’m not a fan of the derogatory statement “what a dog.” It’s used to insult people behaving badly but it’s actually more of an insult to dogs. Dogs are usually much better than people. Yes, they’re animals. But only if you think of animals as being creatures less than human, and I don’t. I’m of the mindset that animals are creatures often better than human.

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am a huge dog person. That saying alone explains a bit about how I think. I’m a dog person. A dog-person. I love dogs, but I understand dogs. I am part dog. Maybe I was a dog in another life. I often joke that in my next life, I’m coming back as a dog with a good owner in a nice house.

I see a dog and I go all gooey inside. I want to get close to them, to pet them; to hug and kiss on them. I am careful to ask the owner first, of course. Because sometimes people train their dogs to be aggressive, or because they may be aggressive by nature. I understand this. Still, I ooh and awe. I smile. Hell, I grin. My Facebook page is covered with dog-related pages. My checkbook cover (yes, I still have a checkbook, for those bills that I can’t yet pay online and for emergencies) is dog bones.

Maguire was my Honey Bear, my big furry baby. I loved that dog more than life itself and was nearly inconsolable when we lost him, as was Kevin (as was Roy, Bobbi, everyone who knew him). In our eyes, he was a fur-person, capable of understanding most of what we said and of carrying on conversations. Yes, we often spoke for him but he was very articulate.

Cooper came along in October and for a while it was a bit like having a new roommate. We didn’t know any of his quirks; he didn’t know any of ours. But soon he settled right in and before you know it, he too became quite the conversationalist. Turns out he’s pretty funny. Great sense of humor, fairly smart. While he’s not the cultured boy that Maguire was, and is, in fact, more of a Honey Boo Boo than a Honey Bear. More trailer trash than high class. We love him anyway, because he’s now our baby.

Turns out we’re not the only ones. There are an awful lot of people out there who feel the same way. According to research, people who think of their dogs as babies are actually kind of correct in that dogs react to their humans in a manner that “eerily mimics how human children respond to their parents.” The researchers used an experiment that involved something called the “secure base effect,” something that is typically found in the nearly unbreakable emotional ties between parents and their children.

Dog test subjects, who earned treats by manipulating interactive toys, were placed in situations where there was an absent owner, a silent owner and an encouraging owner (I would have used the word “parent” since we’re talking about dogs being our babies but I suppose that’s picking nits). The dogs whose owners/parents weren’t present were much less interested in working for their treats than when those owners/parents were in the room.

Dogs appeared to be most comfortable and most willing to take a chance when they were near their people, offering what has been deemed “the first evidence for the similarity between the secure base effect found in dog-owner and child-caregiver relationships.”

Evidently science has already deciphered this effect in human-children versus fur-children. Kids who were able to use their mother as a secure base were found to be more motivated and persistent than those whose mothers were absent.

This comes as no real surprise to either dog trainers or dog owners. It certainly comes as no surprise to this dog owner.

Maguire was my baby; I spent every day with him. Cooper is now my baby; I spend every day with him. Maguire was a good boy, smart, knew all of his toys by name, had a vocabulary that was at least a hundred if not more words. Cooper is becoming a good boy, too. He’s smart; he’s learning his toys by name. He knows to take one up to my office and to bring it down at night, and trot around the house with it in his mouth. He sits, he does paw bump, he does stay game and he gets rewarded for it.

What a dog. What a boy.

A good life at the end of the world

by Lorin Michel Thursday, June 20, 2013 12:50 AM

Every once and awhile the husband unit and I like to sitr things up, go a little crazy, shake a tail feather. We do something out of the routine. Usually date night is Thursday. It's a great almost end of the week event that gets us out of the house and out amongst other humans. We look forward to it every week. It also helps that going on Thursday reminds us in the most pleasant way that Friday and the end of the week are just the next day. We’ve made it this far; we can make it one more day.

On this Wednesday, we shook it up and went to a Chilean wine tasting. Yes, we go wine tasting almost every week, but we almost always go on Thursday. So going tonight was different. Also, it was Chilean. Usually the wine tastings we go to are domestic. Not always California, but almost always from somewhere in the West.

We became fans of Chilean wines years ago when we first started dating and used to frequent an Italian restaurant called Fabrizio’s. It was a tiny hole-in-the-wall place in Thousand Oaks, always dark, with an upright piano in the corner and a player on Friday nights. The food was always outstanding, very northern Italian. Fabrizio himself, an older gentleman with a shock of white hair and an accent as thick as marinara sauce used to sit us himself. The first time we went, he asked if we wanted wine. We asked him what his recommendation was. And he brought a Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile. It quickly became one of our favorites, and a wine that was nearly impossible to find elsewhere.

Tonight, we tasted five Chilean wines, two crispy whites and three reds that ranged from medium to deep to richly chocolated.

Steve came by to chat, one of the owner’s husbands. We’ve gotten to know him fairly well over the years, know about his two girls, one who will be a junior at San Jose State, the other a senior in high school; his job in an ever-changing aerospace industry. He was sipping the Cab and set his glass down on our stand. We don’t sit when we go tasting since we sit all the time. Instead, we take up residence at one of the bar areas surrounding a poll. How are you doing? we asked. He smiled.

It's all good, he said. It’s good about once a year to feel this way.

We think he meant mellow, happy, relaxed, ready for anything, just awaiting the world and all of the secrets it holds. Some good, some not so good, but all part of living.

We smiled, too. It’s what we all think, what we all know.

One of the last wines we tasted was called Finis Terrae, a blend. The wine maker was there, a dapper man with gray frazzled hair and dancing blue eyes. His name was Arturo Cousino and he’s the 6th generation Cousino to head the Cousino-Macul winery. He explained that Finis Terrae is Latin for the end of the world.

The winery is located at the very tip of Chile, at the southern most tip of North America, which not that long ago in our history was considered the end.

Kevin and I sipped our wine, we reminisced about Fabrizio and enjoyed the break in our routine. Granted, we didn’t stray too far from what we normally do, but we did go on a different night.

I watched the people around us, all laughing and talking, enjoying the moment, each other; the wine.

I stood there with my husband, equally relaxed and I thought if it all ended right now, I'd be ok. I have a good life, a full life, and I was holding a glass of Chilean wine. Life is good here at the end of the world.

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So that’s what that birds and bees thing is about

by Lorin Michel Monday, June 17, 2013 12:31 AM

The strange phenomenon of talking about sex and referring to it as the birds and the bees began perhaps as early as 1640 when the poet Thomas Carew wrote The Spring and used the phrase the “birds in the bees” as well as this: “But the warm sun thaws the benumbed earth/And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth/To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree/The drowsy cuckoo and the humble-bee/Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring.”

Word sleuths William and Mary Morris seem to think that the actual phrase of the birds and the bees may have been inspired by words from the poet Samuel Coleridge who wrote in 1825: "All nature seems at work ... The bees are stirring — birds are on the wing … and I the while, the sole unbusy thing, not honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing."

Dr. Emma F. Angell Drake, who was born in 1849, wrote a section of a publication called The Story of Life that was published in 1909 and later picked up and included in Safe Counsel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her piece, Dr. Drake tells her daughters "when you discovered the tiny blue eggs in the robin's nest and I told you that wrapped in each shell was a baby robin that was growing there, kept warm by the mamma bird..." The narrative continues on in vague terms. Then she describes the father's role in reproduction like this: "Sometimes it is the wind which blows the pollen dust from one plant to the other, and sometimes it is the bees gathering honey from the flowers. As they suck the honey from the blossoms some of the plant dust sticks to their legs and bodies, and as they go to another plant in search of sweets this is rubbed off and so the parts of the father and mother plant get together and the seed is made fertile.” Safe Counsel was reprinted at least 40 times from 1893 through 1930 and may have been widely enough repeated to have contributed to "the birds and the bees" myth.

I bring all of this up, not because I’m confused about the birds and the bees – I have, after all, been married twice – but because of Cooper and his fascination with both especially when we’re walking in the morning.

Out on Hawthorne the birds dart in and out of the trees. Hummingbirds hover and buzz. Crows crow from on high. Little tufted guys bounce along the walls and when Cooper gets a glimpse of one he lunges and tries to catch it. This morning, one flew low and nearly right across his path. He growled and yipped and snapped his jaws. The bird was long gone, and alighted across the street on the sidewalk. Cooper barked once; the bird turned his tail feathers up and chirped.

We continued on. A bit further up, along the sidewalk, there were a number of flowering bushes. They were alive with tiny white and pink flowers, and hundreds of bees that buzzed in and out and darted into the sidewalk. When they got low enough, Cooper snapped his jaws and tried to eat them. I couldn’t seem to get him to understand that a bee in the mouth would not be worth the buzz. He seemed to think they were flying candy. I thought they were dangerous. I had no idea what a bee sting would do to a dog, especially when it’s inside his mouth. I imagine dogs can be allergic just like people. I had visions of his tongue swelling up and blocking his airway. Of trying to get home in order to rush him to the hospital. All the while, the birds would be tweeting merrily and the bees would be buzzing with wild abandon.

This would happen because of the big red-furred dog and his need to eat everything that comes across his path, literally. Today it’s the birds and the bees. Tomorrow it might be lizards.

It’s a never-ending adventure but at least I now have definitive proof that the birds and the bees are not about sex at all but are just there to annoy the dog. After all these years, there is finally some clarity.


Maybe I should update Wikipedia. 

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live out loud

Making someone happy

by Lorin Michel Saturday, June 8, 2013 2:49 AM

Recently I was privy to a Facebook conversation between two long-ago co-workers, now Facebook friends, about happiness and how they had tried for so long to make other people happy, often at their own expense. I was fascinated for several reasons. First, I’m always fascinated when people share personal information on Facebook. And second, because it’s a topic that I have long thought about myself.

I think it’s human nature to want to please. We start out wanting to please our parents. Then we segue into wanting to please our teachers and then our peer group so that we can remain in good standing within that group. We get into a relationship and we want to please that person, doing what we think they want and what they like, what will make them happy. Then we get married and we do the same.

We go to college and we try to please our professors. We get jobs and try to please our employers. And while that’s part of being a responsible human and a responsible adult, it is also, in some ways, about not being responsible to ourselves.

Here’s the gist of the conversation:
“I realize I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to make other people happy.”

“How old are you?”

“Too old to be doing that. I realize that while I was spending all of that time making other people happy, I was doing nothing to make me happy.”

“I know what you mean. I spent so much of my life trying to make other people happy and I’m not sure that you can do it.”

“It’s sad when you think about it because I really want this particular person to be happy but I’ve realized that I can’t be responsible for his happiness.”

“When you realize that, you’re actually on your way to true happiness for you.”

“Maybe I’m finally on the way to happiness then.”

And then it ended. I don’t know why the person who started the dialogue was talking about making others happy without making himself happy. I don’t know who he was talking about. The person he was talking to didn’t mention any specifics either and that’s when I realized that happiness is an abstract. There is no definition for it. It doesn’t exist because someone says it does. It exists because you choose for it to exist. It’s not big and round and fun. It simply is. Happiness is something you need to find inside. It’s about self-awareness. You can’t be responsible for making someone else happy because you’re not inside their soul. They have their own unique situation that allows them to find, or reject, happiness. They can choose to see if they can make someone else happy but they do so at their own expense. They need, instead, to choose to make themselves happy which will then make others want to be with them, and thus perhaps find happiness.

People can and should be responsible for each other. We can care for each other, love one another. We can put food on the table and supply shelter and clothing from the storm. But we can’t make each other happy because we don’t know how. We can only do what makes us happy and hope that it’s enough to help those we love to be happier, too.

It’s a matter of self-awareness. And yes, self-preservation.

It’s a motto I share, the religion that guides me. I am responsible for my own happiness because if I am I can hopefully brighten the lives of those around me because I can. I can be content and smile. And I can live it out loud.

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live out loud

Games we play

by Lorin Michel Friday, May 24, 2013 12:27 AM

It has been quite some time since I updated everyone on the progress of Coop de Ville, the Cadillac of rescue puppies, especially in regards to his schooling, aka training. Since it’s the end of the school year, I thought this would be a perfect time to do just that.

When we first got our friendly four-legged redhead, we weren’t sure what to do. He was different than Maguire in every way save one: they were both dogs. We quickly found that we were still used to doing things with Maguire because of the way Maguire did things. But the way Maguire did things was not the way Cooper did things so we ran into some issues. Though Cooper had definite aggression issues toward other dogs – diagnosed as fear – he was otherwise a good dog. We just didn’t know how to bring the good dog out. We were shortchanging him by not adjusting our mindset.

In other words, a dog is not a dog is not a dog. Or something like that.

Once we came to the conclusion that we needed help, we got trainer Danielle. She was here at least three times. But we had an incident with her last time she was with Cooper that bugged us. She remains a great trainer but her approach was turning us off and we didn’t feel that it was helping Cooper, so we parted ways. Still, she left us with some invaluable tools that we needed to use.

And use and use and use. Because one of the things that made Cooper not Maguire is that we were not being consistent with what we wanted him to do. We figured he’d just know because Maguire had always known, but Maguire grew up with us and so we all had a kind of short hand. Cooper has been with us just seven months (this weekend). Shorthand needs to be learned.

Once we figured out what we were doing wrong and started being more consistent with what we were doing and how we talked to him, how we treated him, how we trained him, things started to get better.

In addition to the leash tools that trainer Danielle gave us so that he’d walk better and be less aggressive with dogs, we also knew we had to create some training that would teach him how to stay, how to not bark incessantly and how to be better when people come into the house.

We decided to play games.

Painting by Ray Krajewski

First we introduced the Stay Game whereby Cooper is told to sit, which he does, and to stay, which he sometimes does, for a short period of time. This game works best when he sees that we have his favorite cookies in hand, Nutro mixed berry crunch treats, little heart shaped cookies that actually smell good enough to eat. I kid you not. They smell like fresh blueberries. He sits, we tell him to Stay, give a hand gesture with the flat of our hand, indicating same, and walk away with the cookies. In about a minute or so, we come back and if he’s still sitting, he gets the cookies. If he’s not, we play Stay Game all over again. He’s getting better.

Then we introduced the Quiet Game. Cooper has a somewhat shrill bark. It’s very jarring when he decides to unleash it here in the house. And when the doorbell rings, he’s fairly out of his mind. Bark, bark, bark, BARK! We had tried “no,” but no doesn’t tell him what we want him to do. So we introduced Quiet. Now when he barks inappropriately, we say Quiet and it works most of the time. He’s actually much better at the Quiet Game than the Stay Game.

A couple of weeks ago, we also decided that he needed to learn how to better greet guests coming into the house. Barking his fool head off and lunging toward the door does not make people feel confident about coming inside. So whenever someone is coming, Kevin puts his collar and leash on and sits him down in the living room, in plain sight of the door. When someone comes in, he is sitting, staying, and being quiet. Then he gets walked over to properly greet our guests. He is gentle, he sits down and offers himself up for petting. This is the Greeting Game, and it employs all of the games. It is also proving to be successful.

The next game we will attempt is the Kissing Game because Cooper is not a kisser, but we figured with a cookie or two, we might get him to play. That’s the game I’m most looking forward to.

Celebrating the games we play tonight as we’re homeschooling our still-new boy and getting him to live it out loud a little more quietly while sitting.

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live out loud

In which I try to find something positive to say about all of the noisy landscaping equipment used by all of the various landscapers on all of the tiny yards in our neighborhood

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, May 22, 2013 12:21 AM

I think it’s a uniquely California thing. Those of us lucky enough to live in a single family home live in one that is between 1500 and 2200 square feet, on average, on a postage stamp of dirt. The houses are squishily close together. Kevin often jokes that when the neighbor sneezes, he can reach out the window to hand him a tissue. The little stamp of dirt is divided into a front yard, the corner of the stamp, and the back yard, a slightly bigger piece of the stamp. Sometimes there is a bit of yard on one side, not usually on both sides. In track housing, one side of the house is usually concrete for storage of trash barrels and other stuff.

The yards need to be tended because many of the tracts of homes, ubiquitous dwellings all with red tile roofs jammed together in an impossibly small area, have a little something called CC&Rs, or covenants, conditions and restrictions. Most of them will tell the home-dweller what they can and can’t do, and that they have to keep their lawns, at least the front lawns, well taken care of and manicured. For this privilege, many get to pay a monthly fee (we don’t here).

We also get to hire gardeners because dog-forbid we cut our own grass. California is a gardener-rich environment. Drive through any neighborhood between the hours of 7 am and 6 pm, Monday thru Saturday, and you’ll hear the grind and growl and whine and snarl of lawn mowers, weed whackers and leaf blowers. Our own gardeners for our little postage stamp of a yard come on Tuesday afternoon, usually around 3 or 3:30. They pull up in their non-descript and unmarked white van without windows but chock full of gardening stuff. Tools and machines and buckets and barrels. Three guys de-van, all in long sleeves regardless of the temperature, all with big, dirty white canvas hats that provide a little shade to the backs of their necks and keep their faces shielded from the sun. Very dark sunglasses are always perched on their noses. They smile, say hello, and show off very white teeth. Then they fire up their equipment and make my teeth hurt.

On Saturday morning, the people behind us, and I mean reach-over-the-wall-and-touch-something behind us, have their lawn done at around 7:30 am. It’s a little rude especially since our bedroom is in the back of the house so we’re in prime hearing location for the growl and whine of the lawnmower. I hear the truck pull up. Lug to a stop. The doors open. The hatch of the truck creaks. A piece of wood is pulled out, scraping across the metal. A lawnmower wheels down, clunks onto the asphalt. The cord rips from the engine. The engine sputters, cries, and then starts to clamber. As it is pushed through the yard, it spins as the grass is munched. The weed whacker whirs and slices; the leaf blower blows everything into a nice, neat pile so that it can be scooped up with a mostly quiet rake that simply scrapes across the ground.

The whole process takes 10 minutes. It takes 10 minutes at our house, and the house next door. It takes 10 minutes everywhere, unless there’s a bigger yard but people who have a bigger yard, like my old bosses who have 30 acres, also have people that live on the property with the sole purpose of caring for the grounds.

I listen to this equipment daily. I can stand just about everything but the leaf blowers. They make my head ache. But I understand why all of this exists and if I have to find something positive to say because I said I would and because this is a positive blog, then it’s this: the grass always looks good and smells good and grows greener because of the noise of the mower, the screech of the whacker and the deafening wind of the blower.

These guys are doing the work that most people don’t want to do, and they do it with a friendly attitude. I like that. I appreciate that.

Still, I celebrate desert landscaping and can’t wait to someday have it, because there will be no need for power mowers or blowers ever again. That may be the greatest reason of all to celebrate.

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live out loud

Sol searching

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, May 14, 2013 1:08 AM

With the passing of winter comes summer. In some parts of the country, and the world, there is a lovely breeze of a season known as spring. Not here. Here, in the golden state, we go straight from chilly nights and frosted mornings to heated days. Yesterday and today both topped out at 102º in Oak Park.

We like the heat. I’ve said before that I believe I was born to live in the Southwest. The climate suits me. There is no snow to speak of, unless one travels to the mountains to ski. And that is where snow should be. Not clogging the roads that lead to the mall or to work. It should only bury the areas where one can slap a board or boards to one’s feet and shoosh down a hill.

I like the dry heat of an environment where the daytime temperatures can climb to over 100 but the nights cool down to the low to mid 60s. Yes, it’s hot. The house gets oppressive and we’re not big on air conditioning (I suspect that will change if and when we move to Tucson) but once it cools and the air starts to flow through the open windows, it becomes comfortable. At night, we still usually need a blanket on the bed when we sleep.

The sun and I have a long history together. I grew up when there wasn’t so much sunscreen as there was suntan lotion and oil. Most of it smelled like coconut and salt water. If we were going to the beach, we slathered on the oil. If we were laying out by a pool, we used lotion because oil left a film on the water. If we didn’t have Coppertone, we used baby oil. It was all about the tan.

It’s no wonder that I have had skin issues with bad moles and a non-staged melanoma. The dermatologist and I are good friends.

I don’t “lay out” any more. I simply don’t have the time, nor the desire to waste precious time doing nothing but burning my skin. But I still love the sun, that low-mass star that sits on the outer edge of the Milky Way, some 93 million miles from California, and consisting of mostly hydrogen (74%). The rest is helium (25%) so that it floats, and 1% of something else undefined. It’s 4.5 billion years old, and still looks fairly good for its age. It rotates completely once every 26 days, which evidently is one reason it is considered a fairly mediocre star. I’m not sure why since it completely supports life on this planet; without it, none of us would exist. Neither would the plants, the other animals or even the life in the oceans. At this point in its life, the sun has another 5 billion years in its own lifecycle before it starts to substantially change. I think it’s safe to say I won’t be around to see it.

At the rate we’re going, the human race won’t be around to see it either.

Perhaps then it’s time to do a little sol searching, to find what it is that is most important to us, to discover the lives we’re meant to lead. To change when we need to change; to think differently. To embrace the sun; to live, truly, soundly, roundly; out loud. Our lives may be predestined by fate, or they may be changeable. I believe both, just as I believe in helping keep the planet cool when and where it’s supposed to be cool, and warm and tropical when and where it’s supposed to be such; and blistering hot under the dusty desert sky of the Southwest.

I’m not searching for the sun today; nor will I for several months. I search instead for the clouds that offer a brief respite. I search for the shade on a hot summer day; for the breeze to cool the air. I know where the sun resides and I am happy to see it every day. It fills my soul with its sol, and even though the heat has been blistering these last two days, I celebrate it. I love it.

Because I love the desert Southwest. I was born to live here.

The simple joys

by Lorin Michel Saturday, May 11, 2013 10:42 PM

Every once in a while I realize that I have a pretty good life. I have a family that is filled with good, decent and loving people. I have friends who make me happy that we are able to spend time together. I have a son who has turned from a teenager with little direction to a young adult with passion to a man who is ambitious, loving, thoughtful and funny. I have a husband who makes me laugh and who loves me even when I'm not particularly lovable. I have a dog, a home, some dirt in the desert, and a career that I actually like. I am blessed, and I know it.

Today as I was outside, enjoying a warm May Saturday, a light breeze trying desperately to cool the 85º air and failing miserably, it suddenly hit me. My life is good and the joy I get from the simplest things in that life are enough to make me laugh out loud. A wash of contentment came over me. It happens sometimes and at the strangest times, and almost always when I’m in the middle of doing next to nothing. Perhaps it’s because those are the times when I actually have time to contemplate.

Simple joys are those that you don’t have to work at and sometimes don’t even plan. Like washing the car today. I get tremendous joy from lathering up the paint, standing on the step ladder to reach the windshield and the roof, rinsing it, drying it and then admiring how good it looks. Today, it also got vacuumed, thanks to Kevin, so it’s pretty inside and out. I felt accomplished.

I get some of my greatest joy when I’m eating, especially when enjoying a meal with friends or family. Relaxing, talking, laughing, having wine with music on in the background. This is my idea of the perfect way to spend time.

Did I mention the simple joy of wine?

I love experimenting with a new recipe. Taking the time to put something together, smelling garlic or ginger or whatever as it fills first the kitchen and then the house, knowing that if it tastes as good as it smells, we’re going to have a fine meal. That fills me with joy.

When I can’t see someone but can talk to them, spending even just a few minutes or as much as several hours, enjoying each other’s stories, sharing each other’s lives, it makes me happy.

I love texting with my sister on a near daily basis, just to say ‘hi,’ ‘thinking about you,’ ‘how are things there?’ It makes me feel closer to her somehow, like we’re together more than we actually are. Technology has done that for us, and that makes me happy, too.

Music is one of my greatest joys. Depending on my mood, the day of the week or the time of day, I almost always have music playing. Jazz, the standards, coffeehouse rock, classic rock, new age. Music is, to me, as necessary as sunshine.

Freshly ground and brewed coffee.

Cantaloupe when it comes back into season. Ditto peaches and nectarines.

A perfectly ripe avocado.

The simple joy of going for a ride on the motorcycle, of walking the dog, or watching a really good rerun on television, of getting lost in a phenomenal book, especially if I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it turns out to be. These kinds of things are the meaning of life.

The exquisite joy of having ideas. I have them all the time, especially ideas for things to write. I scribble notes on the paper next to the bed, as I did this morning, getting them out of my head and out onto a place where they can be seen, analyzed, interpreted and hopefully developed. I believe that the constant flow of ideas is a source for the constant maybe of possibilities.

And all of the possibilities that life continually presents may simply be the greatest joy of all. 

To be silent is to listen

by Lorin Michel Friday, May 3, 2013 12:15 AM

One of the things I loved to do when I was in elementary school was to engage in contests where the teacher would write a word on the board and all of the students would see how many additional words could be created using only the letters present in the existing word. I was pretty good at it. Naturally, the longer the original word, the more additional that could be created. I don’t know if it was an early indication of me just loving the idea of words and what they could do, how they could be formed into different words, that made me love the game so much, or if it was the challenge. I’ve always had a competitive streak.

I think about that game every now and again, and yesterday. That’s when I realized that the word silent and the word listen contain the exact same letters and while they mean different things, they are often part of the same conversation, part of the same thought. In order to listen you must be silent. When you are silent, you are able to listen. These are good qualities, and necessary qualities for anyone who strives to be a good and decent human being. Those who do neither are exhausting.

Looking at the words, I realized that they also mean:  is, ten, tin, lent, lint, list, lit, let, net, nit, sent, sit, its, tis, til, sit, set, sin. If I hadn’t been silent, I would not have been able to listen to all of these other words present inside each.

I became fascinated anew by what words can do, how they can change and be manipulated to mean different things but things that work together. I am, of course, well versed in the art of the anagram. In this case, though, in the idea of silent and listen, I’m not talking about an anagram. I’m talking about a philosophy. I’m intrigued by how these two simple words, which alone have so much power, can combine to shout from the rooftops. Their meaning together is so much stronger as two.

To be silent is to bask in tranquility, to decide not to talk, sing, or laugh. To be silent is to hear all that the world has to say, from the rustle of the leaves to the chirp of the birds, the hum of tires on a distant road, the heavy sigh of my dog; the drip of the condensation inside the coffee pot into the left over coffee below. A bicycle churns by, a skateboard clatters, a dog barks. There is a conversation going on somewhere. I can hear voices but can’t decipher words. I’m not even sure if they’re male or female.

The mail truck comes by. I can hear the grinding of the gears, the roll of the tires, the clap of the mailbox doors clipping closed.

If the world was silent, I could hear the color of the laughing green grass, the slap of the blue sky, the yellow of the sun, the purple of the flowers, the red of my car. I could hear the high-pitched ting of the air itself.

I could hear all of this because I would be listening.

Imagine what we could all hear if we were silent just for a little while, long enough to truly listen. We could hear what someone else is saying, rather than talking over them. We could hear the pain in someone’s voice as well as the joy. We could hear the argument one is making and perhaps see its merits. We could hear the love one is proclaiming and perhaps take it to heart. We could learn that silence is golden and that listening is what allows us to truly be in the moment.

Animals understand the art of listening. It’s instinctual. They stop and stand silent for as long as needed to listen for approaching danger or the potential for food. As animals, we would do ourselves an enormous favor to do the same. We could hear approaching danger and we could hear potential joy.

It was Alfred Brendel, the Austrian pianist, poet, artist and author who made the most sense of these two words and their incredible connection to one another, and thus to us. In an interview in The New Yorker, he spoke of how each listener is part of the performance.

“In the concert hall, each motionless listener is part of the performance.  The concentration of the player charges the electric tension in the auditorium and returns to the player magnified.  I like the fact that "LISTEN" is an anagram of "SILENT".  Silence is not something that is there before the music begins and after it stops.  It is the essence of the music itself, the vital ingredient that makes it possible for the music to exist at all.  It's wonderful when the audience is part of this productive silence.”

It’s wonderful when the world is part of this kind of human performance. It’s worth celebrating, and living it out silently, at least this once.

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live out loud

The curious case of the slipper at the top of the stairs

by Lorin Michel Saturday, April 27, 2013 2:35 AM

About a month or so ago, Kevin decided to try something when we went for a walk. The something did not actually involve us being outside but rather Cooper being inside. Since we got him in October, we had been putting him in his kennel each time we would leave the house. We just thought it was better for him, from a feeling-secure standpoint. It was also better for us from a knowing-he-wouldn't-destroy-the-house-while-we-were-gone standpoint.

This first trial of trust would only be for 30 minutes or so. We figured, what could possibly go wrong? Of course, we knew exactly what could go wrong. He could chew the wood shutters. He could chew the leather couches. He could pull all of our dirty clothes out of the hamper. Unroll the toilet paper. Empty the trash. He could pee on the walls.

As it turned out, he did nothing at all but lay in the entrance way, probably staring at the door as he anxiously awaited our return.

We were thrilled. We were proud. We were encouraged that he really was turning into the good boy we always knew he could be. So we started leaving him out when we went to the store, or out for dinner, or to The Wineyard on Thursdays.

Which is where we pickup our story. Last night was Thursday, which means date night which means wine tasting. We took Cooper for a walk a little earlier than usual (5:30) so that we could shower, get cleaned up and leave around 7. The Cooper walk is just a little over a mile so he gets a bit of exercise. After the walk, he gets the last cup of his 2 1/2 cups of food a day. He's gotten all of the energy out of his system, as well as everything else, on the walk. His appetite has been sated. He's content. It's nap time. Us going out has become a regular happening; he's used to it.

We kissed his nose, promised him we'd be back soon, told him to be a good boy, and with that, we were off. Yes, we felt a tiny bit guilty about leaving if only because the face. The face looks like this: eyes wide, a bit scared, a lot lonely. The mouth is closed. The head is slightly tilted. It's Cooper putting on his very best cute. It's a face that says "how can you leave me?"

It's not easy. But we do it.

Last night we tasted wine from a place called J. Rickards. It's in Napa Valley, on the Silverado Trail next to Silver Oak, and they've been there since the early 1900s. Their Zinfandel was fabulous; their Petite Sirah equally so. Didn't much care for the cab. We laughed with the people we've gotten to know, noshed on pretzels and sipped wine. We gave hardly a thought to what might be going on at home since nothing ever does.

On the way home, around 8:15 or so, we stopped to pick up a couple of salads to-go. The sky was newly dark; straight ahead, a huge moon hung just over the road, lighting the way home.

We came in and the little face was there to greet us, tail thumping, butt wiggling. Where have you been? We petted him, rubbed on him, kissed his nose again and I walked toward the bedroom while Kevin took the salads into the kitchen. I rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs and stopped. Something caught my eye. It was at the top of the stairs, sitting on the edge of the landing, parallel to the step. My right slipper.

I stared at it for a minute or so. It wasn't comprehending. My slipper is never up there. It's always either under my nightstand or in the closet, and it's always with its mate. I called to Kevin, come take a look at this? He came. He stared. We both turned to look at Cooper who was standing in the living room, what?

I went up to retrieve the slipper. It was fine. No dog slobber, no teeth marks, no shredding. It was just ... there.

We're curious as to why after all this time, a slipper is now carried to the top of the stairs. The same thing happened today. Same slipper (the right), same position at the top of the stairs, same lack of slobber. Kevin has decided that in addition to mommy issues, Cooper also has a slipper fetish. I suppose. But it sure is, well, curious. And awfully funny. At least until the slipper ends up like Wubba I and Wubba II.

For the time being, I’m celebrating the curious case of the slipper at the top of the stairs. But if anyone has any wisdom to share in order to solve the case, I’m all ears.  

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live out loud

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