10 Months Studying Under the World's Greatest Zen Master OR How I Became a Dog Person

I presented the following at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Stillwater this morning.

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Until last year, I had never owned a dog.

Growing up, we had a gold fish named Zach Morris who lived to the ripe old age of forty-eight hours, and an African Grey parrot -- creatively named "Bird" -- that my sister and I weren't allowed to touch, not because she cost more than my first car, but because the creature hated kids, had talons like a sharpened number two pencil, a vice-like grip, and an eagerness to use both.

But I liked dogs. Really, I did. But after three years of marriage, and thirty years of having nothing to show for that affection, my wife felt like I needed to prove it.

Weeks of browsing the websites of humane societies and animal shelters passed before a shared Facebook post emerged from the mist. Someone had found a stray Great Dane/Labrador mix. They had contacted the owner, and they had had enough of her frequent escape attempts. The poster didn't have room for another dog, so the stray's next stop would be a shelter, and from there...

Well, at any rate, we sprang into action. Taking off early from work ahead of the Martin Luther King holiday, we went to go meet the Facebook friend-of-a-friend.

After a few pleasantries with the human in question, this lumbering, gangly, jet-black-except-for-the-grey-snout monster came out of the house's sliding glass door. From there, she immediately sauntered next to me, rubbing next to my leg, as if to say: "Hi there! I know we've just met, but I've decided we're best friends now!"

She then proceeded to fall on her back, legs akimbo, informing me beyond all doubt that: "If we're going to keep this 'best friends' thing going, I think it's time you learn of my fondness for belly rubs."

Which brings me to the first lesson I learned from this Buddha by way of a Labradane, this I Ching that could be mistaken for a small horse:

Never be afraid to be friendly; it costs you nothing. At the same time, it never hurts to set a few ground rules, especially where belly rubs are concerned.

We took her home within the hour, and promptly renamed her CJ Cregg, after Alison Janney's character on The West Wing, as befitting any tall lady destined to be the boss of any room she walks into.

While we were initially quite smitten with our recently adopted 5-year-old, we weren't prepared for how much of a spaz she would turn out to be. Long were the evenings where, somewhere between sleep and reality, she would twitch, kick and flail at nothing, without a single concern for the fact that she was the size of a velociraptor.

She possessed an Olympic-sized, fury-filled phobia of rabbits, but she wouldn't take that terror lying down. Her quest to bring their kind to justice shifted the balance of power in our neighborhood, and the hoppy little guys still whisper her name in fear to this day.

That first night she stayed with us, nervous of her new humans and surroundings, CJ considered the small army of toys we had purchased for her. She ignored all of them, except one: a twelve-inch squeak toy in the shape of Chewbacca the Wookiee. While CJ might have been our pet, Chewie was hers, and if you ever squeaked the thing in front of her, she would make her gentle disapproval known.

Now, I'm willing to grant that in that little ball of fur she saw some latent memory of a litter she cared for in years past, or that her softer Labrador jaw may have opted for the softest of the toys we made available. But I like to think that she was just really into Star Wars. It's a theory that only gained strength after she eschewed every tennis ball and bright red chew toy on the market in favor of only Star Wars toys, including plush representations of Yoda and an Ewok. Not only was she a Star Wars fan, our dog turned out to be a bit of a collector, and she was really only interested in the Original Trilogy. Just as it should be.

In short, she was quickly teaching me the second lesson she felt important:

Don't be afraid to be a weirdo; your people will find you one day.

As my office was closest to home, it fell on me to go home each day and make sure that CJ got the... ahem... outside time she needed during the day.

The procedure did not vary much day-to-day. I pull up in the driveway, and the sound of my engine immediately sends a wave of activity through the house. Blinds would rustle as if they had come to life on their own, and then a free-floating grey snout pokes out through the exposed section of the window. If anyone tried to break and enter at my house, the sight of CJ might have intimidated them away pretty quickly, but if they were willing to rub her belly, she'd probably help them load up the electronics.

I would enter through the front door to be met with a greeting that was the perfect cross-breed of pouting and impatience. From there I moved as quickly as I could to get her leash attached, and we were out the door. In a flash of kicking, spring-loaded legs CJ would conduct the pressing business of the afternoon, check every inch of the backyard's perimeter (the ongoing threat of bunny attack was something against which she remained ever-vigilant) and then promptly found the sunniest spot of the yard in which she could luxuriate.

The thing is, my lunch was pretty short. In the span of forty-five minutes I had to drive home and back to the office, and make sure CJ was taken care of. Also, I needed to, you know, ingest food so that I wasn't a walking, grouchy corpse before three in the afternoon.

There was never enough time. The ritual descended into chaos most days. In one particular instance, there was some crisis at work that needed my immediate attention (spoiler alert: it turned out to not be an emergency and it didn't need my attention), I was behind in my writing, I was in a not insignificant amount of pain that would soon lead me to my second surgery in as many years, I was hungry, I was tired, I was grouchy, and I really had to use the bathroom.

And the damned dog wasn't remotely interested in coming back inside.

I wished I could explain to her what was at stake. I wished I could tell her that all of this sunshine is great, but if I don't get back to my day-as-scheduled, and I mean right now, then the entire planet is likely to implode without me!

As crazy as that thought may sound, I'm sure it sounded even loopier to the neighbors when I stopped wishing I could explain my dilemma to her and started actually verbalizing it.

She took all of my words, curved her eyebrow in a way only she could and, after a fashion, said:

"Hey dad, I know you're really busy and everything. I don't understand what the hell it is you think is so important about those glowing rectangles. You call them computers, but for my money, they're broken squeaky toys. That's fine--we can continue that argument later.

"But I'm worried about you. Sunny days are a finite resource; I don't know how many we have left. I do know this: For me, this backyard is enough. It's pretty great. There are trees, and it is often free from dirty bunnies. For the next ten minutes, I think it should be enough for you, too. In ten minutes, I'll be a good dog and come back inside, but for right now I think we need to sit here and be quiet."

She then barked and licked her paw like a cat might, just so that I could know she was serious.

She made her point. I stayed out there for twenty minutes. Work would wait, and CJ managed to drive home yet another lesson that I'm still working on, you know, actually learning:

Sometimes all you need is grass beneath you, and sunshine above; although, to reach that particular level of nirvana, it helps if you're allowed to pee in the backyard.

The writing of this sermon has been hard; harder than you'll ever know. I'm inching towards the end now, and I have to get into what I've known this whole time, and what many of you have already suspected: This story doesn't come complete with a happy ending.

We only had CJ for about nine months before she started slowing down. Always a fussy eater for a dog her size, she got even fussier still. The Vet was at a loss to understand her rapid weight gain coupled with her stubborn refusal to eat. I internalized the mystery in front of us to mean that I had snuck her one too many pretzels in an ongoing campaign to buy and maintain her esteem. We kept going back and forth to the vet's office twice, even three times per week to get to the bottom of the matter. It had to be so demoralizing for her. Even though it was doing a number on Lora and me, CJ never lost her poise. I'm sure there was a lesson in her subdued reaction to prolonged poking and prodding, but I've yet to figure it out.

Then, after she even refused to -- under any circumstances -- take the pills meant to treat her mysterious symptoms, the vet finally got a clear read on the issue.

And, well...

My wife and the vet cried, I must have had a blank expression, as I really couldn't perceive much beyond the faint but persistent ringing in my ears. CJ, true to form, yawned in response to the news.

We took her home. From then on, we wouldn't struggle with the pills. Our days would be filled with treats, extended time up on the human bed, howling at nothing in particular, and ever-vigilant patrol of the ongoing rabbit plague.

That next day, I brought home Wendy's for lunch. I'd say it was the kind of culinary choice people make when confronted with sadness they don't yet know how to put into words, but it's eighty percent of my diet on a good day, so I'm really at a loss for excuses. Knowing the curative and restorative powers of flame-broiled beef, I also got our ailing pooch a bacon cheeseburger...

And I have to tell you, words will fail to assist me in describing the expression on her face:

This creature, who beyond a tummy ache couldn't have a conception of her impending fate, saw that cheeseburger in my hand and had a verifiable, theological revelation. In that moment, she knew one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt:

Heaven is real, and it had bacon on it.

Seizing the moment, she snatched the burger from my hand and led me on a chase through the house that ended only when CJ realized that she couldn't swallow the thing whole, and needed my help to tear it into chewable pieces.

It was another lesson she was trying to teach me, although she may have been too preoccupied to know that she was teaching me at that moment:

A cheeseburger is a luxury fit for Kings; and yet, it is always important to chew your food.

We had several good days during that time. Long gone were the people that kept her as an outside dog because actually caring for a pet was too much of a drag. She was loved, and she didn't need treats to know it.

But it didn't last.

The grim news from the vet came to pass. One more visit to her office still had to come.

Even though it seemed at that moment like we failed her somehow if we couldn't keep her happy and healthy for more than ten months; even if it seemed like everything was ending in that moment, she still had one more lesson she needed to teach, or more importantly, remind me of, before she had to go.

We sat in the vet's office, numbness the only human quality I could reach for. Another family passes us in the waiting room, and without any thought as to the circumstances of the moment, CJ trotted free of the hold I had on her leash and promptly sniffed the butt of the other family's German Shepherd. She had to be in such pain at that moment, and more than a little scared, but when I first met this dog ten months earlier, she made it clear that you should never be afraid to be friendly. On that last day, she made one final point that still vibrates through my head all of this time later:

Don't be afraid to be friendly, but remember this above all else: It's never too late to be friendly.

CJ Cregg the Puppy passed away a little over six months ago, and I wish I could tell you that I've internalized all her lessons and become a better man for all the heartache it cost.

But my dog dying so soon after she came home with us was kind of a bummer. I know! I was surprised, too. It felt like grief, I suppose, but I guess it had to be different. Dogs die all the time, and I probably should have been ready for it. That idea seemed pretty silly the instant I wrote it, but it pales in comparison to how silly I've been behaving in the months since.

I've been busy. Some might say -- cough, my wife, cough -- I've been so busy that I've been ignoring those pesky things that often crop up in the wake of tragedy and disappointment -- I think you humans call them "feelings." What's more, it feels like I've been doing my damnedest to ignore the things CJ tried to teach me while she was still here.

I still need the maximum allowable dosage of caffeine in the morning before friendliness is anywhere on the agenda.

As I'm growing older, I worry I'm, despite CJ's stellar example, becoming that most odious of things: normal. I'm fighting that development with everything I've got, but I think it's going to take a lot more than Star Wars toys to stay ahead of that ongoing struggle.

A cheeseburger isn't some sort of divinely manifested mana. For me, it barely qualifies as lunch.

I can't remember the last time I took that time for lunch to simply marvel in the wondrous serenity of a field of grass and clear skies. I know it's been at least six months.

I suppose sermons are meant for you, the people sitting out there, to bring you all to some greater understanding, or at the very least bring you closer to more profound questions. I hope there are some notions that CJ brought to my attention that might help you in your search for truth and meaning, but I'd be lying if I didn't say this one was aimed at one particular attendee of this service: me.

As of the end of this sermon, I'm going to be more or less on vacation, and I intend to take my own lessons to heart. I'm not going anywhere, but I think I may try to reach out to some old friends. I'm going to sit in my backyard and remember how much my dog enjoyed being out there. It goes without saying that I'll probably ingest a few cheeseburgers, but I may actually try to enjoy them.

In short, I will remember the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part, and as that's an ongoing process, it's probably time for me to get another dog.