Monday, November 30, 2009

Suzie and Us: A wonder dog remembered

Our Suzie, the wonder dog, died Saturday.

The 9-year-old, big, black Labrador with the knowing eyes, wagging tail and boundless love for us slipped away painlessly, after a week in which she rapidly lost use of her left legs.

Suzie Q. Walburn (named for the CCR song) came into our home in 2000 as a puppy, following son Will into the house and everywhere he went, a practice she continued until she could no longer get up to follow any of us around, no matter how hard she tried.

We called Suzie a wonder dog because she was just that. During her years with us, she was hit by a car, out-swam an alligator and survived a gunshot to the head. The vet thinks that gun shot -- inflicted by a crazed, heartless SOB who knows who he is -- and the remaining shrapnel on the left side of her head may have been the cause of a stroke which left Suzie paralyzed and unable to function.

So, don’t get me started about the person who shot her (and killed her daughter dog Gracie with the same shot or shots on a night we remember as a nightmare) some six years ago. I’ve written a letter (but have not mailed it yet) to the shooter, who never admitted or apologized. He even, with his wife, smirked about it to the police (who knew he did it, too). But this writing today is not about that shameless person, who will pay for what he did somehow, someway.

This is about our Suzie, the best dog ever.
Suzie was a testament to facing adversity with courage and hope, and always, love. She kept on going, loving, serving us, through all the challenges her life brought. A four-legged epitome of persistence and love, Suzie helped her family in countless ways.

Dogs love you no matter what, and Suzie had a Ph.D in this unconditional love. Whatever obstacles any of us faced, Suzie knew and comforted. She’d nuzzle, hand you her paw and look into your eyes as if to say, “It’s gonna be alright. I love you.” If that didn’t work, she’d climb her 100-plus pound self into your lap and comfort you that way.

Even at the end, during the final days when one of the four of us would pet her and cry, it was us Suzie was worried about. She’d struggle to raise her head to see what was hurting us (even though I think she knew) and to offer comfort. “It’s gonna be alright,” she told us with those brown eyes. “I Love You.”

We will never know for sure what happened to cause the paralysis which took Suzie down quickly during Thanksgiving week -- be it stroke from the gunshot wound or a tumor somewhere in her nervous system.

We just knew by Saturday that we were being selfish to want “one more day with Suzie.” Our vet in Birmingham, Dr. Roger Dieguez, who will take care of any pets I ever have as long as I live here, came to the house and helped us help Suzie out of her suffering.

If there is a pet heaven, and I think there must be in some form, then Suzie arrived shortly after 2 p.m. Saturday, with a collar full of jewels, for the love, joy and life lessons this simple dog gave to us.

There, Suzie will run and she will jump. She’ll eat as much Moist and Meaty as she wants. She’ll get to go on a ride every day, her window down all the way and her face smiling into the wind. She’ll bark as loud and long as she wants, and she’ll dig the biggest holes ever. And, in pet heaven, Suzie will chase chipmunks and win the race.

We buried her at one of her and our favorite places, at our camphouse and land in Dallas County, a pretty place under a giant stately oak, marked by a cross with Suzie’s name, and the appropriate title: The best dog.

On Sunday, four eagles soured high in the blue skies above Suzie’s resting place. I know that Suzie’s spirit soared with them.

Rest in peace, Suzie Q, our wonder dog.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Being Thankful, and Jobless

It’s a big week for being thankful.

I know we are supposed to be thankful year around, not just on the holiday with Thanks in its name. And, I am, or I try to be.

Regardless, it is a particular time to be thankful. I don’t have to take much of a searching glance around to see much to be thankful for: family, home, health, pets, life itself.

To be more specific: A patient, loving husband who still has his job, a beautiful daughter about to graduate college, a working son who gets his degree in June, a old dog who has a hurt foot right now but still wags her tail when any of us come around and a regal, elderly cat who still curls up in our laps.

Does it get much better? I doubt it. And, that's not counting extended family and friends.

Still, this Thanksgiving, as last one, I am unemployed. On this Thanksgiving, I am thinking about that and the millions, I say millions, of others who are in the same boat. Like me, they have lost their jobs; they've been laid off and downsized. I hope they all have other things to still be thankful for, too.

Checking the official statistics, I am one of 15.7 million unemployed workers in the United States. These are people who are actively looking for work. That’s up 558,000 in October, when unemployment reached 10.2 nationwide. The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks and more) – that’s my group -- was little changed in October, at 5.6 million. These Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers are scary enough, but when you put a face, a home, and a family with each one of them, it’s easy to get discouraged.

“They” say the economy is improving, and maybe it is in some sectors, but the jobs in my field are few and far between, and the competition is keen. I try not to get discouraged. “Managing expectations” is my mantra when I apply for any job.

Yes, I have considered going back to school to study something else, to acquire skills for field where they are plenty of jobs. I’ve considered the medical field, where there seem to be jobs. And, I may do that eventually.

But, for now, I am still a writer, editor, experienced public relations and communications manager. That’s what I’ve done for 30 years.

I am not afraid to change; I just don’t know what to change into.

So for now, I look for a job every day, and I bother friends for referrals. I write this blog, to keep my name “out there” and the mind still churning out ideas. And, I write on the novel I’ve mentioned before, now into the final stretch of writing on it every day until I finish the first draft. Then, I will begin bugging everyone I know who has ever published a book for referrals to agents or publishers, but that’s for another day.

On this Thanksgiving, I can in some ways even be thankful to be where I am, unemployed, one of the 15.7 million jobless. That's because I can be thankful having the time to write my first novel and a chance to catch my breath and spend time with my family instead of on the job and on the road.

Still, none of those benefits pays any bills.

If I have a lesson from more than a year of looking for a job -- more than a year of doubts and fears -- it would be that to deal with it, sometimes you really have to look at the other side. You have to look at the “other hand,” the positives that come from negatives, and move on.

Each Thanksgiving, we have a tradition of placing three kernels of corn (actually pop corn kernels) beside the plate of each guest at Thanksgiving dinner. Before the blessing, we go around the table and each person tells three things they are thankful for, as they place the kernels back into my grandmother’s crystal sugar bowl.

Despite it all – the uncertainty of being an economic statistic and all that goes with it -- this year, I will have still a hard time narrowing it down to three.

Picture(s) of the day: High water

How high's the water?

Both piers are under water, and only the pole
with the still-shining solar light still shows in this picture of our pier on Pine Barron Creek. This was a day or so after Tropical Storm Ida came through the South.

Below is what it the pier scene normally looks like.

Song of the day: High Water for Charley Patton, by Bob Dylan

"I just can't be happy, love

Unless you're happy too

It's bad out there

High water everywhere."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Listing lots to like about lists

It’s Monday, so it’s time for a list, or lists.

My list-making habits didn’t end with my gainful employment. I still start each Monday with a to-do list for the week. Only now, instead of “finish communications plan for Project Whatever,” or “plan mill visit for Congressman Whoever,” it’s more likely to be “write on book, exercise, Go to Fred’s (dollar store), return library books. Laundry.”

I used to put on the list: “get a job.” But that’s not even funny anymore. Plus, looking for a job -- the networking, checking job sites, updating my job matrix list – has become second nature to me now. It does not have to be on the list; that giant task called job hunting now seems as everyday to me as breathing.

Today I had at the top of my to-do list: write on blog. After last week’s heart-felt essay on Danielle and her Daddy, I wanted to ruminate on something less emotional and more practical. Hence, this is a look at lists.

Aside from week-of to-do list, I keep a running list on the counter in the kitchen: garbage bags, dishwashing liquid. I also keep long-range lists, but too often, these fall into the “I’ll get right on that, Rose” category or into the “do wonders…eat rotten cucumbers” status.

See, “I’ll get right on that, Rose” is a line from a movie which my daughter and I say, referring to things we need to do but don’t want to do. The cat litter box needs changing. “I’ll get right on that, Rose.”

“I’m gonna do wonders and eat rotten cucumbers.” That’s a quote from Lona, the mother of my long-time BFF Janet, referring to ambitious plans and good intentions. Long-term lists can land in this category: lose weight, eat more vegetables, clean out the basement storage area, negotiate world peace.

List-making is a great time management tool. We all know that. But, key to making list-making work is two-fold: 1. Look at the list and do the items. Or more specifically: Refer to list often during the day or week, and do the items on it, marking them off as you go and adding tasks as needed. 2. Don’t ignore, lose or forget said lists. Or if you do, re-write them.

I know there apps for task lists on my phone, and in my computer’s e-mail and calendar functions. But, like my news and my books, I prefer paper and pen lists over digital ones, despite those cool-to-check-off-as-done symbols the computer-generated lists have.

Maybe it’s just me, but nothing is more satisfying than marking tasks off a to-do list. You can mark through the item or put a check or X mark by it. There, that’s done.

It’s a multitasker’s motivation and reward all in one.

So, today, in writing about lists I will be able to mark one task off this week’s list: write on blog. Check.

Now, I can move down that list. And, you never know, this week may be the week when I really do finally, “do wonders and eat rotten cucumbers.”

Picture of the day:
Directional signs to our camphouse, a.k.a. the Wild Kingdom or WK for short. Signs custom-designed by Mary Claire and Jackie.

Song of the day: Choctaw Bingo, James McMurtry

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Remembering a Daddy and his daughter

My daughter’s best friend lost her Daddy Sunday. He was too young; it was too soon, and it’s all too sad.

John Welch lost his brief battle with cancer Sunday night, surrounded by his family and friends, and he had a lot of those.

I knew John as Danielle’s Daddy, first meeting him as we sat in the uncomfortable bleachers in the Wilcox Academy gymnasium, watching our girls plays basketball. Danielle was a starter who charged up and down the court, a threat to perhaps throw an elbow and foul out early. Then, my daughter, Mary Claire, might get in the game.

John was there for Danielle’s ball games, and for the prom, where I remember him waiting with me in front of Gaines-Ridge Dinner Club, for the lost limo driver to come take our beautiful girls and their dates to the prom, also at the gymnasium.

That’s how I remember John – being there for his Danielle.

I knew John Welch as just that, Danielle’s Daddy, and I don’t have a bio or obit information to guide me as I write about him. But that’s okay, because, you see, it was Danielle that John was most proud of.

He’d tell you that his beautiful blonde daughter was what he’d done best in his life.

As far as background, I know John Welch grew up in Birmingham and went to school here. Professionally, he ran restaurants and believed in good food and hospitality. Most recently, he managed the Dream Land barbecue restaurant in downtown Birmingham. (This picture is Danielle, who we call D, and John Welch at Dream Land in Birmingham.)

I know John loved rock n’ roll (having followed the Grateful Dead around for a brief period in his young life) and I know he was a Bob Dylan fan, like me, one of those music lovers who get Dylan. John also loved serving folks good food and being a good host.

But most of all, John loved his daughter Danielle, his only child, a love child, even, and he was always, always there for her.

And when John was diagnosed with cancer just a couple of months ago, it was Danielle who was there for John.

Danielle quit school for the semester, withdrawing from Southern Union, where she was studying radiology, moved out of the Auburn trailer where she lived with Mary Claire and others from Camden.

I remember her sitting on our back porch, after she had made the decision to drop out this semester, saying “I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t spend every minute I can with Daddy, just in case he doesn’t make it,” she said, crying, and even then, bolstering herself for what she feared was coming. Danielle negotiated with her grandfather, John’s father, a retired Texas A&M educator who, by nature, disapproves of dropping out of school. Danielle made the tough, adult decisions she had to in order to be at her Daddy’s side, and she was, every step of the way.

I was 23, probably a year older than Danielle, when I lost my mother to cancer, too. So, I feared that I knew what was coming for Danielle and her Daddy, and I knew that she was right to be there for him as much as she could, and she was.

Danielle was there (and Mary Claire was an honored guest) when John was baptized by his father at the Church of Christ he went to as a child. She was there for the doctor meetings, the radiation, the discomfort, the visiting friends and family and more friends. They all moved in together, grandfather, Danielle, John and, for much of the time, and at the last, Danielle’s mother Kelley, and Kelley’s mother, a nurse who I know only as Nanny.

During his final weeks and months, Danielle and her Daddy went out to eat, watched movies, looked at old pictures. They went to an Alabama football game and to see Widespread Panic and the Allman Brothers. She rubbed her Daddy’s back, and helped figure out the meds, made sure he tried to sleep and to eat. She learned more than she ever wanted to about how quickly cancer can move in and devastate.

But, I know that John Welch was right with the Lord and with his family as he faced his final weeks, then days, then hours, with his family and friends, and his Danielle, at his side.

And, I know something else with certainty. Danielle Rose Welch was John Welch’s pride and joy, and he was her hero.

Song of the day: Pride and Joy, by Stevie Ray Vaughan

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Remembering Auburn then, now, and Dylan singing "Here Comes Santa Claus"

Saturday was a good day.

Auburn University won a football game -- after a three-week losing skid of twilight zone proportion -- and my copies of Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart came in the mail.

Auburn won, again.

The good Auburn University football team showed up for Saturday’s game, and we won. The confused, dispirited Auburn team of the three-game-losing streak was replaced by the prepared, determined Tigers who made the Ole Miss game as exciting as any this season.

I think of Auburn, too, after viewing a Facebook photo album by fellow Auburn Plainsman alumni and photographer Gordon Bugg, who has worked as an engineer and soldier since then. His pictures of Auburn in the late 1970s, when we were there and publishing the student newspaper each week, ignited memories and reminded us how much the campus (and we) have changed since then. One of my favorites from his “Auburn evolving” photo album, is this shot of Auburn's War Eagle, from 1977.

Must be Dylan singing Christmas carols

My two copies of Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart arrived Saturday. I’ve listen to all the selections once, and a few twice. As a Dylan fan, I know I’ll like the CD even more with subsequent listens.

But what’s so cool about this Christmas album from the coolest of the cool singer-songwriters and American legends is that he really means it.

First, all the proceeds from the sale of Christmas in the Heart go to Feeding America. Overseas sales will go to similar charities which feed the needy. This guarantees that more than four million meals will be provided to more than 1.4 million people in need in this country during this year's holiday season; plus the Feeding America and the international charities benefiting from the album receive all future royalties, in perpetuity.

Secondly, Dylan sings holiday standards with enthusiasm and, well, heart.

The whole deal is like a gift, really. Dylan's gravelly, wise and time-worn voice is wrapped in his precise arrangements of well-known Christmas songs and packaged with his always-on-the-mark band members and studio musicians and “mixed voice” back-up singers.

America’s best songwriter didn’t write any of the tunes, even though he’s written albums full of Christian songs. But, he put his masterful talent to arranging popular standards and traditional hymns like The First Noel and O Little Town of Bethlehem .

Christmas in the Heart is a treat for folks who love holiday music, Dylan fans, and, I suspect, most others who bother to listen. For needy people in our country and abroad, Christmas in the Heart is what it's name implies. And it is a concrete, WWJD act of Christmas kindness.

Early favorites from  my early listening are Here Comes Santa Claus, Little Drummer Boy, and Must Be Santa (a fun sing-along and what could be the only polka-beat song from Dylan).

I say I got two copies of Christmas in the Heart. One is mine, and it is already being enjoyed, even as I pack away the electronic flying bat and rake into the trash what’s left of our shrinking carved pumpkin.

Christmas in the Heart will be the soundtrack for my Christmas 2009, and if people will take a listen, and remember the reason for the season, it will become a Christmas music standard.
As for my other copy, it will be one of our presents for the family Dirty Santa present swap at my husband’s mother’s house, where we draw numbers and gleefully fight over gifts, some good, some not so good. I hope whoever gets Christmas in the Heart doesn’t get it snatched in Dirty Santa before they can listen to it, and listen to it again, and appreciate the effort and intent of my musical hero’s holiday gift to us all.

Interested in Christmas in the Heart or ordering a copy? Go to

Song of the day: Gotta Serve Somebody, Bob Dylan