Worth It Already

Last Friday was one of the best days of our lives. We’d dreamed about it for years – literally, since 2009, when we brought home our first service dog puppy for Canine Companions for Independence. Our first two pups had been released from Advanced Training (flunked out, basically). Our third was accepted as a breeder – a success, but not quite the heartwarming, This Animal Has Become A Service Dog And Will Now Change Someone’s Life moment that we’d imagined.

Then came Fenwick.
fenwick at the vet

After six months of Advanced Training, he’d learned all the skills he could master and, after nearly two weeks of intensive Team Training, he’d been matched with someone in need. He was, indeed, to Become A Service Dog And Change Someone’s Life. Seven years later, we were finally attending the first CCI graduation of a puppy we’d raised.

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Reunited!!

It was almost more than I could handle.

I thought I understood why this was such a big deal. I assumed that Fenwick’s long-awaited placement would be the “reward,” that after a seventeen months with him – obedience classes, vet visits, bringing him everywhere with us, loving him with everything in us – we would finally see our hard work “pay off,” and that would feel great.

Turns out, assumptions really do make an ass out of you and me.

Ten days prior to graduation, we learned that Fenwick had been matched – but we didn’t know with whom. That news was, in and of itself, tremendous. He’d done it. OUR BOY HAD DONE IT!! Whoever he was placed with was surely perfect for him; it was all good.

Three days prior to graduation, however, when we learned that Fen’s perfect partner was a twelve year-old boy… Somehow, that made things seem even more tremendous. A boy – a child – would grow up with a buddy by his side. A child‘s life was going to be different because of Fenwick. That joyous news nearly did me in.

Again, I thought I understood why I was so deeply moved. Children tug at our heartstrings. Children are supposed to be carefree. They’re supposed to play, laugh, run, grow, and dream. They’re not “supposed” to have to deal with the hardships that adults face, whether they be financial difficulties, illnesses, physical limitations, losses, or heartbreaks. When we hear that a child is going through a challenging time, our Not Fair genes kick into high gear and our empathy goes into overdrive.

I assumed that was why I was so moved by Fen being matched up with a young child. But that was only part of it.

On Friday morning, we arrived at the CCI Northeast regional center right at 9:00, which was the earliest we were allowed to meet up with Fenwick. We hadn’t really worried that he’d have forgotten us since February, but seeing him wiggle around with glee at the sight of us and physically knock us over with his exuberance felt pretty great nevertheless. After an hour of hugs, belly rubs, a walk, and making him show off a few of his recently-acquired skills (he totally gave us some side eye when we made him “get” my cell phone off the ground), it was time to bring him to the reception room where the graduate teams were waiting.
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No way around it: I was nervous. Would it be awkward, this meeting of two families who loved the same dog? What if we didn’t have anything in common? How could we convey that we were genuinely thrilled that Fenwick was being placed with them, but we still wanted to hug him one more time? Could we explain how delightful we thought it would be to keep in touch, without it seeming stalker creepy?

And most important: What if they didn’t like us?

After a few deep breaths, we entered the room and found G and his mom almost immediately. There were introductions and polite greetings until G’s mom and I got to one another. Rather than accepting my handshake, she held her arms out for a hug. I was so relieved and grateful, I thought I might sink right into the floor; and then, as our arms encircled one another, she whispered, “I can’t thank you enough for doing this.”

The tears that had already escaped a few times that morning let fully loose; I pretty much didn’t stop crying for the next five hours.

All of our concerns and anxiousness disappeared the moment we began talking with G and his mother (her sister was with them as well, and equally lovely). They were nice! They were funny! Our kids are six months apart in age! They like books and Star Wars! Best of all, it was readily apparent that Fenwick and G were crazy about one another, and that this was exactly what Fen was born to do: be with G. We never felt awkward or uncomfortable; they could not have been more gracious about the “we love the same dog” thing.

The 90 minute brunch absolutely flew by as we exchanged life stories, Fenwick stories, ate scrambled eggs and cake, traded mementos and gifts, looked at Fenwick photos and videos, and generally took one another in. It was a bit mind-bogglingly awesome to think that what connected us was a yellow furball asleep at our feet.

Things were going just about as well as I could have hoped when G’s mom explained how she’d sought out CCI in the first place: because she knew that G needed help, and a service dog was a way to obtain that help. As was said during the graduation ceremony, Fenwick provided G with “the bridge between ‘I can’t” and “I can” (and is) “the friend (he) can always rely on.”

All at once, what had been light and happy became substantially heavier and more meaningful. Fenwick’s placement with G opened up avenues and possibilities in G’s life that, two weeks prior, had only been hopes and wishes. Within the span of mere days, and embodied in one furry being, G’s entire life had changed. While I had considered all of this before in some capacity – it’s why we started with CCI in the first place – seeing it right in front of me was more affecting than I can describe.

While this is true for every graduate, from eight years old to eighty, and is why what CCI does is so incredible, hearing G’s mom describe how the life of her son was changing drove everything home. Yes, my heartstrings had been tugged because G is a kid and kids aren’t “supposed” to have to go through the hard stuff, but now I saw things through G’s mom’s perspective. She had been searching for answers to help make things better for, easier for, open possibilities for her child – and BAM! all at once, those wishes came true… in a four-legged pup. As a mother, I cannot imagine anything more significant or worthwhile.

With comprehension finally dawning, I felt like the Grinch with his suddenly three-sizes-larger heart; no joke, my heart literally felt bigger, spreading a warmth throughout my chest that lasted all day.

When we’d learned that Fenwick and G were to be matched, I’d gleefully announced their pairing on Facebook. A wonderful friend of mine commented on the post that it was a “full circle moment… Such a great example of the love you showed him!” I had never considered it in that way but before instantly latched onto the idea. For all of those months, through those vet visits and grocery store trips and Target candle aisle mishaps, through nights snuggling close and days romping about, we were loving on Fenwick with everything we had. That love was stored up inside of him – and maybe even made him just a wee bit more awesome (I mean, we’re pretty cool) – and now he was able give that love back to G.

Mic. Drop.

IMG_0539One last hug for Fenwick at graduation before we turned over the leash…

I’ve written before about how raising CCI pups changes lives… most significantly, our own. I’ve also written about how it’s pretty much awful saying goodbye and turning the pups in for Advanced Training. Through it all, I’d assumed that, if one of the pups made it and became a service dog, it would have been worth it.

The more the girls, Nick, and I talked, the more we understood that the joy of Graduation Day – and all it means – so far eclipses the sadness of Turn In day, there’s no comparison. Fenwick becoming a service dogs wasn’t the reward (although, don’t get me wrong, it’s one of the most incredible things that’s ever happened in my life).
Raising him was, in and of itself, the reward.

Fenwick has taught us – and our girls – more about what it means to love, to give fully, to believe, to hope, and to dream than most people ever will. We couldn’t teach Annie and Ella those lessons on our own if we spent our lives trying; raising CCI pups does it for us. Saying that it was an honor to have raised Fenwick, and then to have seen him pass that love and those hopes and dreams along to G is an understatement; our Grinch-grown hearts are so full with pure joy, they are nearly bursting.

I’d worried that saying goodbye to Fenwick for the final time would be tough. Turns out, it wasn’t at all; he’s doing what he’s meant to do and we’re so thrilled him and G, sending them off was happy and hopeful.

Plus, we had our own CCI furball waiting for us at home… With another year to pour love into her, just imagine the possibilities…

IMG_6447This face definitely makes things worth it. Dirty… but worth it.

Opioid Bill – Coming to a School Near You!

Remember back in, say, kindergarten when special “characters” would visit the classroom? Like whenever a letter of the alphabet was introduced, its corresponding Letter Person would appear to herald the new sound? (If memory serves, my kindergarten Letter People were small, anthropomorphized inflatables in the shape of each cipher; according to my kindergarten journal, Miss A was my favorite because she “goes aaa-aaa-choo and I do too.” So introspective, me.)
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Please tell me your grade school also began with these fantabulous creations…

My own girls had the likes of Zero the Hero, who swooped in every tenth day and enjoyed unrivaled popularity on the 100th day of school. They also had Dirty Dan, about whom I expressed some concern on Facebook:

“Tomorrow, Mrs. B said she’s going to bring in Dirty Dan!”
Pardon me?
Dirty Dan! She says she really loves him.”
Shouldn’t Mrs. B keep these things at home, like, in her bedroom?
“What? No! Dirty Dan loves to do dirty things.”
I bet he does.
“He’s really fun to play with.”
Mmmm hmmm. Is he inflatable?
“I’m not sure. Mrs. B can squeeze him and his mouth comes out.”
Does Fifty Shades have anything to do with this?
“Fifty what? We haven’t done fifty. Zero The Hero has only come twice.”
Does Mrs. B’s husband know about this?
“Yes! She brings Dirty Dan home and shows him!”
Kindergarten is way different than I remember it.

I’m still not sure what Dirty Dan was doing, but I trust it was… special.

Although my girls have long passed kindergarten, I still encounter these characters as a substitute teacher. Plus, I have a gazillion teacher friends whose Facebook feeds keep me abreast of current instructional practices, like the wedding of the letters Q and U (no joke; how fun is that!). So this line of thinking is alive and well in my brain.
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Please tell me I’m not the only one who sees this and thinks of the movie Hercules

 

All of this might help explain why I was puzzled when, a few weeks ago, I noticed a headline titled “Opioid Bill Reframes Addiction As A Health Problem, Not A Crime” on my NPR news app and immediately jumped to some… unusual… conclusions:
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Opioid Bill.
Hm. That’s interesting. Never heard of him before.

It seemed a bit odd to be anthropomorphizing drugs and making them cutesy, but maybe schools decided that scare tactics don’t work? I mean, everyone my age sat through the “Just Say No” campaign and watched the “This Is Your Brain On Drugs” commercials (the one with the egg in the frying pan was particularly… memorable) and drugs were still, you know, available on my high school and college campuses, so maybe they have a point…

Heck, if a cuddly Opium critter can help kids avoid getting hooked on morphine, who am I to judge?

First, I tried to imagine the various scenarios in which Opioid Bill might be useful in the classroom and what points he’d help to make. “Hey, kids! My name is Opioid Bill and I’m here to tell you about the rise in opiate use and how they’re being abused! Addiction is a serious issue, and there are consequences for doing drugs… but addicts need medical intervention, not jail time! Let’s sing the ‘Opes are for Dopes!’ song together!”

Next, I began to envision what exactly Opioid Bill looked like. A plush medicine capsule that giggles when squeezed? A flexible, dinner-plate sized Fentanyl patch that could double as a frisbee? A Vicodin bottle hand puppet? A rubber, foot-tall poppy plant with google eyes and a winning smile? ALL WOULD BE TREMENDOUS.

After pondering the physical characteristics of Opioid Bill, I then considered if he was a stand-alone guy or part of a team. Was there a Demerol Dan who discussed the dangers of injection? Narcotic Nellie, accompanied by crosswords and word searches that introduced kids to alternative pain treatment options? Did Stimulant Sam sing catchy ditties to warn children not to crush and sniff Ritalin?

SO MANY OPTIONS, SO LITTLE TIME.

As I ran through all of these possibilities, perplexed as to why my teacher friends had never shared the wonders of Opioid Bill and his Drug Brigade on their Facebook pages, I glanced again at the NPR story. It was only then that I saw the text written above the photo: the lower case b in “bill” and its article, “the.”

The bill about opioids.

Not “Opioid Bill.”

I actually laughed out loud.
Clearly, I have reached the B Side of summer. Only four more weeks (not that I’m counting) until the cherubs are off, life returns to normal, and my Summer Brain is put away until next June. NONE TOO SOON, my friends.

I realize that opioid addiction – and the terrible problems associated with it, including incarceration versus treatment – is a very real and complex issue. I can also see how maybe it would be have been a little… inappropriate… to use cuddly, animated creatures to discuss this subject with grade-schoolers.

BUT OH!, admit it.
If Opioid Bill did suddenly join Zero the Hero and Dirty Dan in kindergartens across the nation, it would be KIND OF AMAZING.

 

Balloon Jesus

A week ago Saturday, I found myself doing something I never imagined: making Balloon Jesus dance in Rochester’s Pride parade.

When my friend, Nancy, explained that our little church group (Sophia Community) would join other local church communities to march at Pride, I knew I wanted to join – and bring the girls. Given that we have both family members and close family friends who are gay, Ella and Annie are completely un-fazed by the thought of same-gender people loving one another; in fact, hearing that others don’t believe that this is completely okay and normal absolutely astonishes them. “But mom – they’re people! No one can control who they love!”

Participating in the parade would be an opportunity for us to actually demonstrate our acceptance and support at an event where the LGBTQ community feels not only safe but celebrated for exactly who they are.

Also, let’s face it: the gay community knows how to throw a party!

In the aftermath of Orlando, I wanted our outfits to be focused on spreading the love. We spent the morning before the parade decorating some t-shirts and psyching ourselves up for the joyful spectacle that was sure to occur along the parade route.
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Annie’s shirt: “PRIDE” {plus drawings of same-sex couples holding hands and a heart with “love” written many times}
My shirt: a geeky music reference that reads |: love is : |  (get it??)
Ella’s shirt: “LOVE is a magic to live by” (the parade’s theme was “Let’s Make Magic”) {also, a drawing of a magic wand}

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Me: “fill the world with music, love, and PRIDE – LMM” (from JLo and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new song, “Love Make the World Go Round,” written in tribute to the Orlando massacre)
Ella: “Love Is Love Is Love Is Love”
Annie: “LOVE is PRIDE”

On the drive over, I attempted to let the girls know that we would encounter some… unusual… costumes, displays, signs, etc. I also shared my not-so-secret hope that we’d be marching near some drag queens, ’cause ever since seeing Kinky Boots, I’ve had a bit of an obsession with men capable of pulling off “female” waaaay better than I ever will be.

Due to blocked off streets, we had to park in a church parking lot about a mile away from our assigned gathering spot and wait for Nancy’s husband, Paul, to shuttle us closer. Paul wasn’t there when we arrived… but a complete stranger another man was. He approached us, saying, “Are you looking to get to the parade, too?” I acknowledged that we were waiting for a ride, but didn’t want to engage in conversation. Being polite to strange men is totally cool, but more than that? Nope. Need to set a good, cautious example for my children.

Then the man said, “Are you waiting on Paul, too?”
Um, yes actually, we are.

“Was he supposed to bring you to Nancy?”
Um, yes actually, he was.

“You’re meeting at 210 Alexander Street, right?”
Yep.

“I’m driving people, too. I can just take you!”

And that is how we wound up riding to Pride in the backseat of a sedan driven by a man we’d met 30 seconds earlier. As soon as we got out of the car – after thanking the nice gentleman for the ride – I whirled around to Annie and Ella and said, “You do understand that accepting rides from strangers is usually a DEFINITE NO, right?”

Good examples, y’all.

Although it took a while to make our way to 210 Alexander, the walk over gave us an opportunity to pass the other participants, floats, etc. I had to stop and collect myself at the We Are Orlando group, where marchers held photos of each of the massacre victims, but otherwise, it was pretty much the very definition of happiness.

All ages and races, rainbow everything, glitter, spandex (so much spandex), butterflies, mermaids, leather bodysuits and masks (the Rochester Kink Society float was particularly eye-catching), tutus, Speedos, unicorns, a log cabin-esque float for a local gay campsite, muscular bare-chested men with towels around their waists atop a float advertising “Bathhouse: The Musical!” … and more smiles and laughter than I can remember seeing in one place in a long damned time.

Oh – and Balloon Jesus. Gimme a sec.

After taking only 20 steps or so, the girls’ eyes were so wide, they looked like young Botox patients gone awry. I leaned close to whisper, “Normally, I’d tell you it’s rude to stare… but everyone here is dressed up specifically so you’ll look at them – so feel free to look! Just try to make your expressions more ‘interested’ than ‘terrified,’ okay?”

I’d seen some in-progress photos of the Sophia Community float, but didn’t know what to expect from the final product. When we rounded the corner to 210 Alexander, I could  vaguely make out a large balloon structure in the distance. This didn’t surprise me – Nancy and I have a friend, Kelly, who makes incredible balloon sculptures for a living (how cool is that!), so having a balloon sculpture as part of Sophia’s float wasn’t particularly unusual.

I briefly considered the possibilities – a balloon cross? Doves? Angels? – but then, upon realizing what it actually was, said aloud, “Oh my gosh. It’s Balloon Jesus.”
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The first great thing about Balloon Jesus was all of the phrases he inspired. “Let’s go meet Jesus!” “I know we’re where we belong because we’ve found Jesus.” “We’ve been touched by Jesus!” 

The second great thing about Balloon Jesus was the sculpture itself. Kelly always does a remarkable job of turning balloons – balloons!! – into incredibly realistic-looking re-creations of whatever she’s modeling, but Balloon Jesus was particularly fantastic. I mean, he looked like Jesus (or whatever I imagine Jesus looks like). To make him more authentic, Nancy had requested that the balloons for Jesus’s skin not be pink or peach – as a Middle Eastern man, Jesus wasn’t light-skinned – and the tannish color of his radiant face was pretty terrific.

The very greatest thing about Balloon Jesus, though, was the reaction that onlookers had upon seeing him. One of the floats behind us was for a local nightclub, and it blasted pop-y music as we made our way along. (This float also featured drag queens; score!) Marching to the celebratory sound waves, Nancy and I – who were each holding a stick propping up one of Balloon Jesus’s hands – decided to move Jesus’s arms so that he appeared to dance.

The parade route was a relatively straight shot, so it was pretty easy to see the folks on the sidelines before we reached them. We watched as they scanned each float or marching group, shouting affirmations (“Happy Pride!”) and cheering. We also watched as their eyes eventually panned to our float, narrowed with contemplation about what on earth they were viewing, and then widened with joy-filled realization.

That’s when the awesomeness really began.
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Other awesomeness: tossing candy!

It was fun, certainly, hearing people call out some version of, “Balloon Jesus is dancing!” and calling back, “Yes, he is!” It was affirming and lovely hearing a good half-dozen onlookers delight, “Hooray! Jesus isn’t white!” or “It’s black Jesus! YASSSS!” 

But I was unprepared for how it would feel hearing people yell, with triumph and utter jubilation, “Hey – you’re right! Jesus loves EVERYBODY! Even us!!”

I never thought I’d feel comfortable shouting to the world, “Jesus loves you!” And yet, as these rainbow-bedecked onlookers gleefully cheered at the thought of Jesus accepting them, when maybe their faith communities had not, it felt not only comfortable but pure, real, beautiful. “Yes, he does! JESUS LOVES YOU!”

I am so grateful to have found Sophia Community, whose members espouse what I’ve always felt about Jesus: that we are, indeed, loved just as we are. That’s the grace and power of God’s love; it is endless, boundless, and meets us right where we are. God’s love is for Ella, Annie, and me. It is for those who go to church every Sunday and those who will never step foot inside a cathedral. It is for those who pray religiously (yes, a pun; God has a superb sense of humor) and even for those who don’t believe.

God’s love is for everyone marching and everyone on the sidelines – the married heterosexual couples with kids, the older men in dapper hats holding one another’s hands, and the younger women with multiple piercings wearing rainbow tank tops that said, “GAY AS F*CK” (there were a good many of those). God’s love is, sometimes to my annoyance, even for the guys on the corner shouting through megaphones that God says gay people are going to hell.

I’d worried that, by marching in the parade instead of standing on the side, we’d miss out on (what I assumed to be) the best part: seeing all of the participants. Now, I understand that, by marching, we had the remarkable opportunity to spread the Love Wins message, to see people feeling accepted and celebrated for exactly who they are… because of Balloon Jesus.

It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Amen!
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Yes, It’s About Race

Have you seen the videos? The ones of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being shot and killed? The ones where two black men were shot and killed by police officers? Two days in a row, two sets of videos, two men’s lives lost.

I haven’t seen the videos, and I’m not sure if I will. I have no desire to each two more men’s lives be horrifically taken, right in front of my eyes. I’ve already seen this over and over again – so many of us have – and yet it’s still happening, so clearly watching isn’t helping things, and I need to maintain a small shred of protection around my heart.

To Anton and Philando’s families, I’m so sorry, and I’m sorry that I’m not watching; I simply can’t right now. But I’m here speaking out for them, and I hope that’s one minuscule consolation.

Where is the outrage? Not amongst black and minority communities, but amongst the rest of us? How are we not so aghast and appalled and furious and devastated that we have to take a moment to sit down and then figure out what to do next? (Actually, I cried when I told Nick about it, and now I’m literally shaking, so there’s at least one of us who feels this way.)

Every single time this happens, the number of people who positively stumble over themselves in their rush to say that “race has nothing to do with it” is astonishing. I’m sure the excuses are already in full force: but Anton had a record! He just got out of jail! He was carrying a gun! (He didn’t reach for it, and was on the ground when he was shot, but yes, he had a gun.) He wasn’t complying! In other words, he somehow deserved to be killed, or was asking for trouble, or at least presented an awfully strong case for violence against him.

Nope. Not about race.

But what about Philando? He had no lengthy rap sheet. In fact, he worked for the local school system as a cafeteria manager. (Not sure why this matters? Well, these days, every school employee is required to be fingerprinted and background-checked, so there is absolutely no way that this man had a violent record. Further, do you have any idea of the saint-like patience and stamina it takes to run a school cafeteria??) Those facts aside, he was pulled over for a broken tail light and was asked for his license. After informing the officer that he had a permit to carry a weapon and that, if the officer checked, a gun would be found in his car, he calmly leaned over to reach for his license and registration – fully complying, as he had been asked – when the officer shot him.

So, just to be clear, Philando deserved this, or was asking for trouble, or presented a strong case of violence against him… how?

Think this is still not about race?

A couple of months ago, I was pulled over for speeding. The whole family was in the car and I lost track of how fast I was going. I didn’t even attempt to pretend otherwise; I acknowledged to the officer that I’d been going too fast, apologized, and handed over my paperwork. I explained to the girls that I absolutely earned the ticket I was about to get, and that it would be a great lesson for me (and them, fingers crossed).

When the officer came back to the window, he returned my license and registration… and told me to drive safely, then headed back to his cruiser. That was it. No ticket, not even a warning. I was stunned, and told the girls so. They wanted to know why I hadn’t gotten a ticket when I’d broken the law. Maybe it was because I was only driving fast, not erratically. Maybe it was that I fully cooperated and took responsibility for my actions. I probably just got lucky. But I also told them that I was lucky to be a white woman rather than a black man, because the outcome could have been different.

At the time, this statement – although true – felt extreme.
It doesn’t this morning.

And yet, most people continue to say that race is not an issue.

When a white college student gets only six months of jail time for sexually assaulting, and attempting to rape, an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, and the photos paraded around the media are of him as a shining athlete, rather than his mugshot, I grow a little suspicious. When a white man guns down people in a theater and is not shot and killed on the spot by responding officers, but is arrested and led away, I grow still more suspicious. When a white man deliberately targets a black church, murdering parishioners in cold blood, and is offered a bulletproof vest by police as he is taken to the police car, I am no longer suspicious; I am certain.

Race has a heckuva lot to do with it.

Still unconvinced? Try this. Imagine that you could trade places with someone for a day. You experience life exactly as they would – a Freaky Friday sort of situation. Now imagine that you’ve traded places with a black man, and that you’ve been tasked with driving around. You’re on the highway. You’re in the ‘burbs. You’re downtown… a black man, behind the wheel. Imagine that you’re pulled over – maybe you ran a stop sign, or maybe you just have a broken tail light (did you even know your tail light was broken?). The cop shows up at your window, and there you are, strapped into the driver’s seat behind the wheel.

Be honest: you’d be terrified. You would’t be sure that you’d come out of it alive.

Think this is still not about race?

We cannot begin to fix this if we cannot even acknowledge, as a country, that racism is an *enormous problem*. So I will say it: racism is an enormous problem in this country. Yes, there is also a police brutality problem (although I truly believe the vast majority of cops are good and are trying their best – but our best is a best that is inherently, unconsciously racist). There’s a gun problem (which is another issue that is still not even acknowledged as a problem, so that’s fun). But right now, right here, the biggest issue is race (ever seen this video of how differently a white and black man are treated while openly carrying?).

WE NEED TO FIX THIS. This is not a black problem or a minority problem; it is a human problem for all of us, every race. I know that the United States is facing almost unprecedented division and difficulties right now, but at its heart, I know we are better than this. I believe in America, and I believe that we can do this; I believe that we can truly be the land of the free, where everyone is created equal.

But until all of us would feel safe walking around as a minority (a person of color… or a Muslim, or someone who is gay or lesbian or transgender, or heck – a woman), we have not reached that place. When most of us would be scared for our lives to walk in those shoes, there is a serious, dangerous, heartbreaking, terrible problem.

Please, let’s stop pretending that this isn’t happening. Let’s not avoid talking about it because it’s difficult. And, for the love, let’s stop explaining away violence against black folks and people of color. Let’s acknowledge that racism is a tremendous problem. And then let’s work together – all of us – to make the change.

 

What Is This Feeling? (omg omg omg)

Today, a familiar, padded manila envelope arrived in the mail. I knew immediately that it contained Jitter‘s “official” CCI cape/vest – the one that she will wear when we’re out and about in public. Since she’s been such a fantastic learner and has such a great personality, we’ve been itching to be able to take her with us on errands. Now that we’ve gotten CCI’s stamp of approval, we’ll start making her our constant companion, just as we have with our other CCI pups.

image1Looking spiffy… but not so psyched to be all gussied up…

Along with this readily-anticipated package, however, came another mailing from CCI – this one thick, in a legal-sized envelope. It was clear from the address label that it wasn’t a fundraiser or informational brochure, but since we’ve never received two pieces of mail from CCI on the same day, I was stumped as to what it could be.

When I opened it, I understood why: we’d never received one of these before.
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A guide to graduation.
Because Fenwick has nearly completed his Advanced Training! He has only 4 weeks to go until Team Training; only six weeks to go until the Big Day!!
He is *this close* to learning everything there is to learn and becoming an official service dog!!!

When I saw that front page of the graduation packet, I got teary.

Our boy has almost done it!!

As I began to read the letter (that accompanied the graduation info) aloud to Nick and Annie, my voice was shaking; by the time I finished it, I was officially crying.

After a year-and-a-half… After doing our best with him and taking him to puppy classes and bringing him everywhere with us… After Annie falling head over heels in love with him and watching our hearts break as we turned him back into CCI, kept afloat only by the hope that maybe he might actually do it, might actually change someone’s life…

After all of it – this boy is nearly there. He is our first CCI puppy to make it to this stage; the first two were released early, and Jambi is considered a CCI success because she was accepted as a breeder (Jitter is one of her pups!), but we have not had a dog come this close to fulfilling all of the training requirements and then be matched with someone in need.

Until now.

Fenwick’s learned how to turn on and off lights. He can open and close drawers, doors, cabinets, and refrigerators. He’s been taught to pick up objects and bring them to whoever’s asking. He’s able to pull his handler in a wheelchair. He’s polishing up a few other advanced commands, but otherwise, he’s good to go, training-wise.

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The bold paragraph is the heart-stopper…

That’s not a guarantee that he’ll graduate, however. We know this. There’s always the chance that something will happen in the next few weeks that could get him to be dismissed (that possibility is slim, but still). More likely, there’s the very real possibility that he won’t be the perfect match, personality- or skill-wise, for any of the candidates. CCI wisely has more dogs than recipients at each of its quarterly, two-week Team Training sessions; that way, each person is matched with a dog who truly meets his or her needs. Accordingly, there are always – every single time – several perfectly trained, otherwise-amazing, ready-to-go potential service dogs who do not find their human…

… meaning, every single time, there are several eager Puppy Raiser families – like us – who receive the news that their dogs did not make it, after all. Come August, we could well be one of those families. We tell ourselves this over and over, so as not to get our hopes up only to have them dashed in an instant.

And  yet…
It is nearly impossible not to hope, not to imagine, not to nearly jump out of our skin with excitement and pride.

Because, whether or not Fenwick is a part of the graduating class, there will be a graduation ceremony on August 12th. On that day, after two weeks of intensive matching-up and getting-to-know and detailed instruction and exhaustive training, a group of people will go home with a dog by their side — a dog who will guide and comfort them, assist and teach them, allow them to live the lives they have dreamed about.

There is a group of people out there right now – at this very moment – who, in six weeks, will have their lives changed by a Canine Companions for Independence dog. As we go about our daily summer routine of friends-over and too-much-ice-cream and swimming and reading and staying-up-late, there are other folks out there going about their daily summer routines, folks for whom these dogs represent mobility, friendship, independence, confidence, love, freedom…

Who are they? What are they like? What makes them laugh? Do they prefer milk chocolate or dark? Are they morning people or night owls? What are their goals and hopes and wishes? Are they, as I am, closing their eyes at this exact instant and imagining themselves with the dog that will make the difference?

Will that dog be Fenwick?

Knowing that there are, tangibly, undeniably, people in the world who will be graduating from CCI in six weeks with one of these remaining dogs – and that one of the dogs up for changing someone’s life is Fenwick – is a feeling unlike any I’ve ever experienced.

Even if it doesn’t happen, this feeling, alone, will have been worth it.
And so we wait… and hope… and pray… and cross every appendage… but ultimately know that this will play out exactly as it is supposed to, however that is, and that – no matter what – Fenwick has already made a difference. We will count down the days while reminding ourselves that it may never come to pass.

But then again… it might.

IT REALLY FREAKIN’ MIGHT.
HOT DIGGITY DOG. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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Our Fenny, exactly one year ago today.

Moving On Up

I knew this day was coming: the day that my elementary-school kiddo would – just like that! – become a middle schooler.  It’s been on the calendar for over a year: Last Day Of School. Circled, anticipated, imagined. And yet, until now, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel.

Truth is? I still don’t really know.

For weeks, people have been stopping us in the hallways at school, in our cul-de-sac, even at the grocery store, and uttering some version of, “Hey there, are you ready for 6th grade??” Each time, I would jokingly shush them. “STOP IT. Not yet! She still has more time!”

(To be clear: they were saying this to Ella, not me. I answered anyway.)

It wasn’t that I was dreading this moment; not at all. But I hadn’t been looking forward to it, either. It’s just… different.

For one thing, it’s the end of an era. Six years is a long time when you’re eleven; a lot has happened and changed since 2010. Plus, our elementary school is just so very lovely – a wonderfully close-knit community, delightful and involved teachers, a truly welcoming and warm and inviting space where everybody knows everyone.

It’s like Cheers, really. Except without the alcohol.
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Obligatory Last Day photo. 
When I got to school to help with the moving up ceremony, I noticed a whole bunch of her classmates wearing much fancier duds – while Ella had opted for, um, this. I hadn’t thought anything of it until I saw everyone else… and by then, it was too late. I didn’t care; I just hoped she’d be comfortable.
And then, after gym, she rounded the corner wearing a floor-length sundress, courtesy of her Grama — which she must have tucked in her backpack without me even knowing. 
This girl is ready, y’all.

Middle school is… bigger. Farther away; no more walking, no more talking with the crossing guard, no picking dandelions on the way home. (Much) earlier mornings and later nights. New people.

That last one is a doozy. I’m a bad New People person. I understand that it’s Ella, not me, who will be meeting said New People – and I also know that I met the majority of my closest childhood friends in middle school, so this is really a wonderful thing – but still. New People anxiety is real, you guys. Even when I’m not the one doing the meeting.
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Obligatory photo with us in the courtyard after the ceremony.

It’s also occurred to me that part of what makes this so different (from the other school transitions) is that Eleanor is reaching the age I remember. I have a few scattered memories from elementary school – playing with Smurfs on the playground, getting pooped on by a bird while waiting to go inside from recess, pretending to get a drink at the water fountain after I’d been sent out of class for answering other classmates’ questions out of turn… But my real, solid MEMORIES begin in middle school – and they are strong.

I can recall precisely the way the lunchroom calzones tasted, the feel of the auditorium seats, the way the hallway curved to the right to go to Home Ec, and the weight of the library doors. If I really ponder it, I bet I could remember the way to my locker. And that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the memories of what took place in those spaces – the way my French teacher laughed, the look on my classmates’ faces as I divided the them into East and West for a Berlin Wall presentation, the sound of my math teacher’s voice, the projects we created in Social Studies.

Because these memories are so vivid, they don’t seem far away… and certainly not 30 years old. When I dropped Ella off at an evening birthday party a few weeks ago, the DJ already playing, she disappeared into a sea of eleven year-olds who were awaiting pizza and hula hoops… and I was immediately immersed in my own middle school party memories. It felt as though I, myself, should be handing over the gift cards and joining my friends out back. I could easily distance myself from her grade school experiences, as though I were watching a movie from the back row. Middle school, on the other hand, feels 3-D, as though I can reach out and touch it, as though it’s mine – which makes everything blur and blend in a strange way that I can’t quite distinguish. I just know it’s a unique path in this parenting journey, one that I hadn’t even known existed. Surprise!

I don’t really like surprises.
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GrandMeg and Papa flew in for the occasion. Pretty awesome stuff.

Which brings me to the final reason I think this is all so foreign and bizarre: I don’t know what will happen next. Up until now, things were reasonably predictable. School ends; summer; school begins again – same basic schedule, same basic outline, same basic everything. Now, not only does the daily routine become new… I know that Ella, herself, is – in some ways – starting over.

She’ll be the one in charge of her classes and her assignments; we may hardly even know her teachers. She’ll choose electives and clubs. She’ll get herself to and from class – which, by definition, brings about its own form of independence… which is largely achieved by breaking away from us to become her own, independent person.

I know all of this. I know it’s exactly what needs to happen. Ultimately, I want it to happen, because I want Eleanor to become a capable, confident, competent human being who can give back to this crazy world of ours. But right now, the force of the pull for her to become her own independent self is so strong, it’s giving me whiplash.
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Humoring me by flashing a smile my way during the ceremony.

This isn’t a bad thing; I’m so enjoying watching her grow and mature and use sarcasm and hold conversations on politics and music and grammar. To put it mildly, she’s a fantastic, kind, funny, intelligent, good-hearted person – someone I would consider tremendously fortunate to have as a friend – so I feel tremendously fortunate to be her mother. But when she met me outside of school today and told me that she’d been invited to a friend’s house, along with several other buddies… and that she’d prefer to do that than partake in our annual summer tradition of new library books and balloons and snacks… and I let her, because she was so excited and I could almost see her desire to just hang out with her pals — that magnetic, soul-filling balm that is true friendship and which becomes essential right around this time…

Well. It was bittersweet.

Fifth grade, I understand. Fifth grade is wanting to sleep in but not being able to stay up. It’s refusing to acknowledge my presence but then reaching for my hand. It’s being offended that I want to look over her texts but coming to me when she finds a scary passage in a book. Fifth grade is deciding to be a vegetarian for two weeks but also being thrilled when I send a note in her lunchbox. Fifth grade is holding on and letting go and pushing off. It is the natural, logical extension of fourth grade, which basically followed kindergarten, right?

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First day of kindergarten – nearly six years ago.
Blue leopard skirt (she chose it herself)… Princess lunchbox and backpack… Bandaid on her shin… Still had all her teeth… FOR THE LOVE.

Sixth grade… and seventh and eighth… Are not the same. We all know and remember this; something changed in middle school. That doesn’t have to be negative – I had a wonderful middle school experience – but it is its own, new thing.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m anxious. I love my girl, and I love my relationship with her – and the relationships she has with Nick and her sister – and I don’t want that to change once she gets to middle school (and beyond). Change is hard (for me).

At last, however, I’m out of excuses and “Not yet!”s. There’s no more time. She’s really done it – elementary school is over. She’s headed on next year whether I like it or not, so if I want to continue enjoying this journey – as surprising as it can be – I’d better come along for the ride.
And, man. I want don’t want to miss this.

Congratulations, my dearest E-Bean. I’m so proud of your six elementary school years – of the person you’re becoming, and the person you already are. As you yourself said, “I did it, mama! OH EM GEE!”

You didn’t just do it. You rocked it.
Omg, indeed.
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First and last day, fifth grade.

Un-Weird: They’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

It’s been a heckuva couple of weeks.

Okay, so that’s putting it mildly.
Shit has really hit the fan, hasn’t it?

Last Sunday, after learning about the Orlando massacre, I wanted nothing more than to hole up with my phone and consume as much information as possible; it was almost all-consuming, this desire to know more, to reach out, to stay connected.

Simultaneously, though, was this desire to stay as far from the news as possible. There’s so much going on this time of year – family birthdays, end of school, beginning of summer, my girl “graduating” elementary school (I can’t even) – that I viscerally recoiled from the external forces that seemed intent on taking the little time and energy I had away from what mattered most… Meaning I also wanted nothing more than to hole up with my girls and Nick and the dogs and weed the garden and listen to Ella and Annie read to me and hug everyone as much as humanly possible.

In the end, we wound up telling the girls about the attack – in part because we would be watching the Tony Awards that night (duh) and I knew they were dedicating the show to Orlando, and in part because we thought they might hear about it in school and we wanted them to hear it from us, first.

(During their school’s annual Flag Day celebration on Tuesday, the flag was taken down before the ceremony – as it always is – so that it could be re-raised for everyone to see, followed by The Pledge of Allegiance. This year, the flag crested the top of the pole… and then was lowered down again until it reached half-mast. The jarring juxtaposition of the mourning flag, the kids in their patriotic regalia, and the words of The Pledge – “with liberty and justice for all” – was not lost on the parents in attendance.)

After we shared the basics, the girls asked – as they always do when they hear about hate-filled crimes – why anyone would do such a thing; do they not know that gay people/black people/women/transgendered people/Americans are okay? How do they not get it? We answered honestly that we don’t know; it makes no sense to us. There’s fear that fuels hatred… but beyond that, we don’t know why – not really.

Nick ended our discussion by saying, with resignation, that he didn’t know what the take-away message was — but he was so sorry these sorts of things are reality. At first, I agreed; but upon further reflection, I realized there was a message I wanted to impart:

Be kind.
See other human beings as just that – human beings – rather than “others” simply because they’re different. 
Don’t fight hatred with hate; fight it with love and knowledge and understanding.
And never forget that one individual – who claims to be part of a community – doing evil things does not mean that that entire community is evil, not by a long shot.

The girls looked at me like I had two heads; my “advice” was so basic as to be assumed. “Thanks so much, Captain Obvious. THIS IS ALL YOU’VE GOT?”

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Unrelated annual Memorial Day photo…

The background to all of this fear and hatred and judgment – from nutty “bathroom bills” to the absurd six-month Stanford rape case sentence to ISIS to Orlando to Britain to the lambasting of the parents whose two year-old was tragically killed by an alligator – has been Hamilton. I mean this literally and figuratively: the soundtrack has been on an almost-constant loop in our house, and the storyline is fresh in my mind.

Immigrants coming to America. Native-born residents taunting said immigrants and grousing about how they take away from those who were here first. Disagreements on the size and role of government. Pride causing people to do really stupid things. Women being treated as objects. Gun violence. People attacking one another simply because they see things differently.

The parallels between this 200+ year-old story and the craziness of today have made recent events almost entirely surreal.

The musical ends with Alexander Hamilton’s killer/rival/one-time friend Aaron Burr lamenting that he should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and him. (No, we haven’t seen the show and won’t before Lin-Manuel leaves… but we did snag tickets to a February performance. Only eight months to wait, yo!)

That’s the crux of it, I think – the crux of everything. Somehow, we allow ourselves to fall into the belief that there simply isn’t enough… space, time, energy, money, resources, love, etc. for all of us. It becomes us versus them. We fuel our narratives with fear. If you’re not like us – a different race, another sex, transgendered, gay, a different religion, from another part of the world – we let those fear-fueled stories take over until…

… well, until there are half-mast flags during Flag Day and dancing nightclubbers gunned down by an extremist and people screaming (literally) for a ban on Muslims and folks being harassed just for trying to use the loo.

The thing is, though? Our kids don’t get it. No, I mean it: they don’t understand any of this, because they cannot fathom this us versus them mentality. As Rodgers and Hammerstein so aptly said, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear… Before you are six or seven or eight – to hate all the people your relatives hate.” So we’re trying a different approach.

A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook about the push by some for Elsa to be shown as gay in Disney’s Frozen 2 – and how I thought that was unnecessary, but how I also thought it was nonsensical for people to oppose the idea on the grounds that they’d need to explain it to their children, or it would be too confusing for kids.

My awesome friend, N. – who happens to be a lesbian – backed me up with these fantastic sentiments:

Exposing children to things at a young age is soooooo important. Just like ‘love is an action…not just a word’…so is parenting.

It’s pretty simple. Things are only ‘weird’ to kids because parents make them that way.

YES, this.

Our girls live charmed, privileged lives. They want for little and go to a (wonderful) school that is not racially diverse. Largely because of that – because we know that their personal experience is what will shape their view of the world and of the people sharing this planet with them – we have deliberately made efforts to introduce them to things that are different from their experiences, to make those things un-weird.

It’s much harder to talk disparagingly about “them” when you’ve met them face-to-face.

Also – although their worldview is narrow, we make a point to discuss as much as we can, to give them language and context. Just prior to Ella’s kindergarten year, a friend of mine told me she and her partner informed their son that they were gay. He’d never heard the term before – their life was all he knew – but they wanted him to be familiar with it before he started school, in case the other kids mentioned it. Nick and I thought this was a good idea, so we – casually, matter-of-factly – told the girls that they were half-Asian, lest they hear the word at school and debate it (“I am not Asian!”). They’d never heard that term and were fascinated (Annie wanted to know “which parts” of her were the Asian parts).
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This isn’t good or bad or anything in between; it just is, we told them.

And so it has gone with everything else. They know we’re Christian – but not everyone is. They have classmates who are Jewish and Hindu and Muslim and atheist; none of them is good or bad or anything in between; they just are. We’re straight; their uncles are gay. It’s not weird, because it just is what it is. They have strong opinions about Donald Trump (yes, really); they also know that people they love may be voting for him, and that doesn’t make them bad people; it just is.

None of these differences makes people weird (well, maybe the Trump voters…), and it certainly doesn’t make them worth hating.

The more Annie and Ella learn about people who are unlike them, the more normal – and human – those people become. So, when they hear stories of racism or sexism or homophobia or religious persecution, they are genuinely confused. “But they’re not weird. Why would anyone hate them so much?”

As I said, there’s so much else going on in life right now, I haven’t even begun to process recent current events – and I definitely don’t have any big answers. But I think all of our kids may be the place to begin. If they can be distraught that Burr didn’t realize the world was wide enough for him and Hamilton… they can be distraught that anyone thinks the same today.

We need to teach them that “different” doesn’t mean “bad” or “weird” or “wrong” – it just is. We need to do it before they are six or seven or eight… So they don’t have the hate.

It’s a place to start, anyway.