Sunday, February 19, 2012

Critter of the Week: A Best Friend Who Has Passed Away

"Meatballs with Baxter" - Digital, 2011

You think dogs will not be in heaven?
I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

The above illustration was inspired by a flash fiction story called, "Meatballs with Baxter" by Mark Belisle. It was featured on his Rogue Wave Fiction blog, on which can be found many short stories and short, short stories of a slightly off-center and always entertaining nature.

In the story, a man has an unusual conversation with his dog, who has come to know him pretty well. The breed is never stated, but for pictorial reference, I used a friend's dog, also named Baxter, who was a large and gentle black and white great dane.

The real Baxter passed away last week. So did a rottweiler named Taylor belonging to another family I know. Both these dogs were loved and cherished by their humans, and in their own way returned that love and comfort as only a furry critter can.

My childhood dog, a springer spaniel-lab mix named Buddy, passed away at 14 years while I was in college. He had been suffering from various maladies, and there was a feeling of relief at his finally being at peace. Yet, there also lingered, as usually does after a loss, regret at not having spent more time with him in years past, more afternoons playing in the yard, more walks around the neighborhood or park.

Coming into this world, a dog's life doesn't have many prospects. Many dogs will be passed around from shelter to shelter, never knowing a comfortable spot on a couch next to an affectionate owner.

Any kindness, care and love towards an animal that you share your home with, whether it spans a few years or lasts for over a decade, is always well spent. Whereas, the relationship with a person is complex with its expectations and fluctuations, a relationship with a dog doesn't require much beyond food and love. May the hearts of humans someday revert back to that simplicity.

Farewell, Baxter, Taylor, and all the pups who have left us. We thank you for your warm companionship and your unconditional acceptance.

And, please remember those left behind in shelters. Make a donation to a local shelter or animal advocacy group today for a pet that you or a friend has loved.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day!

Redneck Cupid - 5x5" x 4.25",  Digital

It's the time of year when a multi-billion dollar industry's fancy turns to showering retail outlets with every shade of red, pink, and purple in celebration of that highly profitable notion, Love. 

The namesake of the second-largest card purchasing holiday of the year met with a much unhappier ending at the hands of the Roman Empire, but not before presumably sending the first Valentine in the form of a note to his jailer's daughter, whom he cured of blindness before his execution.

It begs one to ask, what the heck does the sacrifice of a saint have to do with the annual flurry of affectionate greetings hitting the postal service, as well as the consumption of over 35 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate? 

Well, we could go back a little further, before Christianity set out to absorb a number of pagan holidays, to a time during the month that would be February when the pastoral festival of Lupercalia was held to chase out the evil spirits and promote health and baby-making. 

The festival consisted of ritual sacrifices of goats and dogs, after which the neighborhood male youths would run through town's crowds with strips of the animals' skins. Women would deliberately stand in the way, as being whacked with the swinging pelts would ensure fertility and an easy childbirth.

Personally, I think we've advanced quite a bit with the card swap and bon-bon stuffing.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Critter of the Week: A Hobbit

Bilbo Contemplates - 3.5" x 2", Digital
It is a dangerous thing, 
going out your front door.
- J.R.R. Tolkien

An entry for Ellen Million's Sketch Fest, which usually lasts one or two days. Contributors choose one prompt from many posted by others, and whip up an illustration in under an hour. I usually push it. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But, it's a good exercise in thinking and working quickly.

The prompt I chose was "There and back again" from Marta Fabianek. I immediately pictured the legendary little guy, recollecting his experiences, and choosing just the right words with which to record them. Perhaps a little exaggeration here, a bit of embroidery there...

Tolkien's The Hobbit is a study in getting outside one's comfort zone. Hobbits are known for their comfort zones. They stay in their holes, mind their own business, and certainly don't have adventures. What would compel a respectable hobbit to leave his home and run off with a crazy old wizard and a bunch of dwarves? Why would anyone leave their safe haven and wander out into an unpredictable world?

We are torn between the desire for security and the need for personal development. Both are necessary for survival and without a healthy balance between them, the result is either being stuck under a rock or end up spinning out into space. Biologist Bruce Lipton has equated the behavior and needs of cells to that of the complete organism. When cells don't grow, they stagnate and die. When they grow too much, cancer develops. Stagnation is easy. Growth is more challenging, yet essential for all life.

Leaving the safety of the hobbit hole, even just by changing our ideas, can be just as terrifying as facing the trolls and dragons of Middle Earth, especially when we define ourselves through entrenched beliefs and perceived limitations. By opening his door and his mind, Bilbo Baggins returned home with a better understanding of his own character and depth of courage, and also a better understanding of other types of people and places. He became more, not less, of who he was. And isn't finding out who we are the point of our journey?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Inner Voice (We All Ignore)

2.5"x3.5", Watercolor, Ink

Above is my latest submission to the Grumbacher ATC Swap, held on their happy little Facebook page. The theme this time around is “Fairy Tales,” and I chose the scene in which the disguised Queen offers Snow White the poisoned apple.

It’s a moment similar to many in our own lives, when that inner voice strains to warn us, but we’re too thick to listen. Most of the time, we’re faced with something more innocuous than impending death. But, afterward, it’s hard to shake off the feeling of “I knew that was gonna happen. Why didn’t I...?”

Oprah Winfrey calls it the whisper. She says the warning starts with a whisper, and when you don’t listen, it becomes a pebble upside the head, then a brick, then a brick wall falling down on you, etc. As individuals, one of the hardest things we’ll ever have to do in life is learn how to listen to that internal warning system. As a species, we have become champions at blowing it off altogether.

In the original story collected by the Brothers Grimm, which was called Snowdrop, the young princess has several chances to get it right, but still falls for the evil Queen’s lures despite repeated warnings from the Dwarves. The first time the Queen visits, she pulls the laces on Snowdrop’s dress tight, cutting off her breath. The Dwarves come back, loosen the laces and revive her. The Queen returns on another day and offers her victim a poisoned comb. Down she goes, again. The Dwarves find her, remove the comb, and all is well.

The apple incident is the final attempt by the Queen. Snowdrop takes a bite and collapses. This time, the Dwarves cannot wake her, and instead place her in a glass coffin which the Prince discovers later on. In the Grimms’ version, he doesn’t kiss her, but rather has the coffin transported to his castle and the movement jostles the piece of apple out of Snowdrop’s mouth. Oh, joy! She’s alive to marry the Prince. The Queen dies from shock at their wedding. Happiness ever after ensues.

After some thought, it occurred to me that perhaps the Dwarves didn’t really try hard enough to save their charge the last time. It would get to be tiresome, don’t you think, coming home every day from working hard at the mines, only to deal with a body sprawled on the floor of your cottage? A discussion like the following might have taken place:
  • First Dwarf: “Seriously? This makes three times!” 
  • Second Dwarf: “That is one daffy broad.” 
  • Third Dwarf: “The apple chunk is probably still lodged in her throat.” 
  • Passing Squirrel: “Y'all are crazy to wake that chick up again.” 
  • Fourth Dwarf: I'm not waking her up.” 
  • Fifth Dwarf: “Well, here's a thought. Let's leave her out in the woods, and maybe someone will come by and take her away.” 
  • Sixth Dwarf: “I like that idea. It worked for that old couch we didn't need anymore.” 
  • Seventh Dwarf: “Right on. But, we'd better put her in a glass case, so the critters won't think she's lunch.” 

Of course, the heroines in the fairy tales of old haven’t exactly been renowned for their mental acuity. Snowdrop’s mother wished her physical beauty, but was content to allow chance to bestow upon her daughter the common sense of a gnat. 

At the very least, these stories call for a follow-up conversation to offset 19th century sexism. After reading a fairy tale to a child, the question should be asked, "What would you have done differently than Snowdrop, Rapunzel, Cinderella...?" Kids today could come up with superbly imaginative responses.

It’s never too early to teach problem-solving skills and nurture attention to one’s inner voice. You never know when a homicidal Queen will show up in your life.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Critter of the Week: A Furry Weatherman

What a hype. Groundhog Day used to mean something in this town. They used to pull the hog out, and they used to eat it. You're hypocrites, all of you!
- Phil Connors, Groundhog Day (1993)

The Groundhog (Marmota monax) - harbinger of either an early appearance by robins and daffodils or six more weeks of thermal underwear. One declaration will garner it praise and cheers. The other will have folks thinking about braised woodchuck with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

As a semi-vegetarian who avoids eating land critters, but can't give up shrimp scampi, I have been inspired on past February 2nds to entertain the notion of groundhog burgers when the stubborn varmint insists on seeing his shadow. Especially, when I find myself tunneling through snow drifts taller than me to get to the lump that might be my car.

Many have tried and failed to influence the outcome of these predictions. Wishful letters á la Santa Claus or the Great Pumpkin, bearing messages like "Dear Mr. Groundhog, I've been real good this year. Please sleep in." generally end up shredded by the recipient, who prefers comfy bedding to written correspondence.

Bribes have spanned the spectrum from humble to lavish. Small and sincere offerings such as nuts, candy, or fruit baskets don't seem to make as much of an impression as the gold-plated tooth sharpeners or gift certificates to rodent-friendly spas given by fans wanting to spend extra time on the slopes in the Poconos.

Those truly adverse to more high heating bills have resorted to threats, some going so far as to make sure the only shadow cast on that day comes from a large, hulking figure looming over the hole, clad in shades and brass knuckles. Little success has come from this approach; the furball just pops up from another, safer location.

2010's Snowmageddon drove one enterprising and exasperated soul to empty several concrete mixers onto the burrow and a 500 yard radius around it, only to later receive a collect call from Australia through which a squeaky voice proclaimed, "I saw my shadooooow!"

As of this writing, we've had a winter too anemic for any self-respecting Groundhog to extend. Still, February is a schizoid and fickle month; a precarious minefield through which we must travel to reach March's gateway to warm and sunny outdoor playtime. Anything can happen during those weeks and usually does.

So, we fair-weather aficionados are left to prepare in the best way possible. I just hope the little rat likes the 60" plasma television I sent him.

UPDATE: Apparently he didn't. Strike up the grill.