Sunday, August 30, 2009

Signs and Wonders: Dog Behavior

Another sure sign that Fall is near: my dogs are playful again.

I can't ever remember a time when I didn't have a dog. They are as much a part of life to me as sunshine and fresh air, and they've given me as much pleasure over the years. I've occasionally had other pets as well, but nothing in the animal world can compare to the companionship of a dog.

Over the past ten or so years, we've always had a boxer (or two). If you've never been around one, this is a great breed. They are slow to mature, even tempered, and fierce-looking but very gentle. To me their most defining characteristic is their need for companionship. They are very "attached" and social. This is great if you want to take the time and responsibility of owning a dog. Not so good if your idea of a dog is a lone fixture in the landscape of your back yard. This is why we usually have two--they can occupy each other when we're at work, rather than chewing the chimney off the house in some sort of psychotic protest of being left alone.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my two have spent a good portion of the Alabama summer trying to escape the heat by taking refuge under our back porch. They make a brief appearance around sunset, when we take our daily trip around the yard--me on the atv, them barking out in front. I think this is some gentetically encoded memory to them--the three pack members on the hunt, roaming the landscape in search of a wildebeast to pull down for supper. And though we always return unsuccessful, this is a trip that must be made daily. Doesn't matter if I'm late from work, sick, or the weather's bad. Miss a day, and there will be consequences . Something will be chewed up and scattered across the back yard--probably something important.

The recently cooler morning temperatures have brought back their playfullness. I heard them on the back porch this morning--the scuffling of paws across the deck. It usually involves a toy or a piece of bedding, stolen by one, chased by the other, and repeated until a new game is devised.

We have not yet, however, witnessed the true sign of Fall in dog behavior this year. I don't know what the scientist would call it, but I refer to it as a "running fit". Every dog that I have ever had has exhibited this behavior at least once. It is a sort of spontaneous reaction to cooler temperatures. Or maybe it's just the "joy of being alive". It usually happens like this: the first really cool day, the dog takes off running at full speed, usually in some sort of circular route, and often finishing with some sort of comedic effect (ie, diving headlong into shrubbery, or knocking over lawn chairs). It only last a minute or two, and will only occur once at the beginning of the Fall season. My late boxer "Butch" was especially artful at this. He once made three complete full-speed circuits of our house and ran right up the sloped front end of the minivan we owned at the time. A dog standing on top of a minivan, with no idea how to get back down, is an image you never forget.

I can't wait to see this year's show.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Signs and Wonders: High School Football

One sure sign of Fall: high school football kicked off last night across Alabama.

College football is king here, a place where you must choose between one of two teams, and close friends and even family members may not speak to each other for an entire year depending on the outcome of a game in November. But high school football is still pretty important, especially in the small towns of rural Alabama. Places like Eufaula, Reeltown, Ashland, Demopolis, and Brewton. Places where there's not much to do but grow up, graduate, and go to work. Where generations of men have suited up as Aggies, Bulldogs, Tigers, or Generals for a few Friday nights that became a lifetime of memories and stories. Where you can still find grown men with families and mortgages and problems "down at the plant" sitting on picnic tables outside the Dairy Queen and talking about an October night twenty-five years ago when "it looked bad at half time, but Sammy ran wild in the second half and we won 28-27."

High school football is a rite of passage in these little towns. A connection between place and time as well as fathers and sons. I vividly remember crisp Friday nights of childhood, going with my dad to see his Alma mater in our town. There was always an ancient black lady named Mabell who sold roasted peanuts (they were called "parched peanuts" then) in front of the stadium--a lady rumored to know voodoo and who supposedly carried a straight razor to fend off peanut thieves. We always sat with my uncle, a man who finished his Friday nights of glory and spent the rest of his life working in the cotton mill. But he never forgot. I can remember numerous occasions when his beloved team was down by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. But a first down or two would have him on the edge of his seat, fist clinching and unclenching, muttering "we're coming back" like a Tibetan mantra (and no, uncle Arnold, they weren't coming back. They never came back).

I was not immune to the fever. My first year was great. An inspiring coach--the kind who made speeches that made you play better than you really were. A good season one win shy of the playoffs. The second year forever limited my glory stories: a new coach and a few returning players led to a win less senior season. My last memory of playing football is walking off the field after that final defeat to our biggest rival, who had only won one game previously that season. Their stands chanting "'O and ten, do it again"; ours responding "two and eight and you think you're great."

My youngest son has better stories to tell. A three year starter for a big school in a larger town, he knows far more about wins and glory than his father or grandfather. Yearly trips to the playoffs. Playing in front of thousands instead of a few hundred. Late night highlights on television news. A year of college ball to prove he could play at "the next level". Memories and knees still intact.

But for others, high school football is still essential to life. So much so that it even requires serious thought and planning. I recently learned that an old acquaintance was considering holding back his son's entry into first grade (he has a late August birthday) because it would give him a year's advantage over the other kids in football. Knowing his dad's athletic ability, I doubt five years would make any difference.

Signs and Wonders

This morning I could feel it when I stepped out onto the porch. An almost imperceptable change in the atmosphere. A breath of cool, (dare I say it?) even dry air on my skin and in my lungs. Even though we are still three full days removed from September, I believe it has begun. It's my favorite time of year. A season known as "Autumn" in most of the country. Here in Alabama, we just call it "Fall".

The signs of it's coming are everywhere. I'll tell you about some of them in my next few posts.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Most of the news coverage a couple of weeks ago dealt with the sad, sorry story of the arrest of a black Harvard professor and the repercussions--which unfortunately reached all the way to the White House.

In case you somehow missed it, I'll summarize for you. Harvard professor returns from a trip with a friend and has forgotten his house key. He and friend attempt to break into his own house. Concerned neighbor observes the break-in and calls the police. Police arrive and ask for identification. Irate professor is uncooperative--claims "racial bias/racial profiling" (at some point stating, in effect, "you don't know who you're messing with"), and is subsequently cuffed and taken to the station. The President of the United States answers a question about the event at an unrelated news conference by saying "the police acted stupidly". Details of the incident are released by the police and the story begins to escalate. The President does some quick damage-control and invites both the professor and the arresting officer to the White House for a beer. No apologies are made public if any occurred. Story fades after a few days due to the health-care debate.

A story that I believe has a lot of similarities has appeared in the news this weekend. If you haven't read it, I'll summarize again. Rock legend Bob Dylan is touring this summer, and is on a tour stop in New Jersey. He decides to take a walk and does so in a "minority neighborhood." Police receive a call and investigate(racial profiling?). Young police officer arrives and ask for identification. Dylan states "I'm Bob Dylan, and I'm doing a show here in town." Officer is too young to know who Bob Dylan is. Dylan is taken back to the concert venue where tour staff vouch for him. Officers thanked him for his cooperation. A person who witnessed the incident said "He (Dylan) couldn't have been any nicer to them." Dylan has made no comment.

Two similar incidents. Two different responses. Two vastly different outcomes.

I don't know either of these men. I don't know their past circumstances. But I do know that people everywhere will continue to clash racially and culturally until they begin to act in the way Dylan did. It is a condition, a way of thinking and living, known simply as GRACE. For those of us who follow Jesus Christ, it is the very foundation of our salvation. God help us to live it instead of just talking about it on Sunday. The world we live in needs it more than ever.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Dog Days of Summer

Here in central Alabama, we are currently experiencing what I have always heard called "the dog days of summer." Current daily high temperatures are in the mid-nineties. Combine that with humidity that often reaches eighty to ninety percent, and you've got weather that will make a tree-hugger cry and beg to stay in the air-conditioned indoors. It's hot enough to melt a hammer most afternoons.

I am old enough to remember the days when not everyone had the luxury of air conditioners, although I look back on those childhood times with amazement now. How did we survive? Well for one thing, we were used to it--no going back and forth between the cool indoors and the blast furnace of the outdoors. I've always felt that the "in and out", sweating then cooling down lifestyle probably contributes to summer colds and sinus problems that are so prevalent during the season. I'm sure that it can't be good for you by any stretch.

People did what they could to stay cool in those days. I remember my grandmother's mill village house had tall (ten foot) ceilings that helped keep the cooler air down low. She also had window and floor fans to keep the air moving, even if it was sometimes just hot air. I remember that one of these fans was about the size of a small airplane engine (and made about as much noise). No child-proof blade guard either. Kids learned fast or got used to being called "Lefty."

But back to the "dog days of summer." I always thought the expression referred to the behavior of dogs during the oppressive heat, as in "it's hot enough to make a dog go mad." I know my own two spend a considerable amount of time taking refuge under our back porch lately. In reality, the expression comes from ancient Greece and Rome. It was the time of their year (July 23 until August 23) when Sirrius (the "dog star") rose about the same time as the sun. Since Sirrius is the second brightest star, they believed that it combined with the power of the sun and contributed to the excessive heat. It is said that they sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of the season to try and appease Sirrius.

Maybe that's the real reason mine stay under the porch.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Power of Words: Summer of '69

"When you get to the bottom you go back to the top of the slide,

then you turn and you drop and you go for a ride,

then you get to the bottom and you see me again.

Helter Skelter."

Forty years ago this summer, Charles Manson heard this Beatles' song and thought it contained a personal message to him to go on a killing spree. Nine people were murdered, including actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child. Words are powerful.

The summer of 1969 was a remarkable moment in American history. A few short months that probably forever changed the course of the nation. Consider these events: massive Vietnam war protests (and war casualties); Woodstock; the U.S. put the first man on the moon; a fellow named Kennedy drove off a bridge in a place with a funny name (Chappaquiddick); the "Miracle Mets" won the World Series; the aforementioned Manson Family killings; and I was seven and my parents had recently brought home a new baby brother. O.K., maybe that last one wasn't that important in American history, but it sure made some changes in my life.

The Manson killings gripped the nation. Some forty years later, people are still fascinated and/or horrified by him. At the time of the killings, he had already spent nearly half his life in jail. His hippie lifestyle of "sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll" attracted a following which became his "family", comprised mostly of young women, who would later carry out the murders as per his instruction. He was convicted of "conspiracy" in the killings and has been serving a life sentence in California State Prison since 1972.

Manson understood the power of words, even if he did sometimes fail to interpret them correctly. They have an awesome power to elevate, as in our praise to God and in songs, poetry, and story. But they also have an equally awesome power to ruin and destroy. You can read about this in the Bible in the book of Proverbs and epecially in the second chapter of the book of James. And of course, in the words of Jesus himself (who is not coincidentally called "The Word").

Be careful with words--the ones you take in and the ones you put out. They are powerful.