Friday, January 30, 2015

Dog smiles

Saffron greeted me with the usual wag and that inimitable smile when she came through the door for a visit this week.

A wagging tail from the dog you love is entirely logical. But how can a dog with no lips smile?

Come on, girls, smile for the camera
Saffron is my son’s 15-year-old whippet. She is without a doubt Garrett’s dog, but she and I have had a love affair since she was a tiny white ball in my lap. When Garrett graduated from college and left for the greater world, he insisted that we get another dog “so Dad won’t be lonely.”

Enter Greta, our almost-8-year-old other whippet. She, too, was once a tiny (brown) ball in my lap. Now she uses her doe-like Garbo eyes and completely un-Saffron smile to get me to share my chair with a much-less tiny her.

I’m a journalist, so my world revolves around communication. I’m pretty good at communicating with humans, but talent I admire most is communicating with other species. Dogs have their own grammar, their own vocabulary and their own favorite expressions.

Once in a while, I do pretty good job talking dog. Usually, however, Saffron or Greta just stand there wagging and grinning – and I’m sure saying “Come on, biped friend, you can say it.”

In the other direction, however, there is no communication problem. I know instantly when either dog wants a Milk-bone, thinks I need a cuddle or wants to go out to pee. (Definition of “speed”: Whippet going out to pee and back at minus degrees.)

Which brings me back to that smile. I can see it, I can appreciate it, but I can’t explain it. I’ve tried over and over to take a smiling-dog photo, but my whippets put on their classic-beauty face whenever I pull out a camera.

Our Garbo-esque Greta
I’m not even sure that a dog smile is a physical quality. It is more of an apparition. Like the ghost of a long-departed friend. You want to believe in it so much that quite willing to see what isn’t there.

Saffron and Greta smile at me with blunt-force subtlety. It’s just a sparkle in the eye, a cock of the head and a tongue peeking through a half-opened mouth. But oh, do I know they are happy with me. And I reciprocate with my bowed human lips and those telltale lines under my eyes. Then I break into a petting frenzy, make silly sounds (“whose a good girl?) and trot off for another Milk-bone.

Dogs may have used their keen senses to hunt for primitive man or their fangs to protect him from hungry predators. But we long ago invented telescopic sights and strong fences that do the job without consuming a sackful of kibble.

No, it is neither nose nor fang that earns dogs a special place. It’s the smile. We can’t really define it, but we certainly know why our hounds have it.

Dogs make us happy. 
- Clyde

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Back to school again. And again. And again.

By now, I should be used to the first day of school. I have, after all, had 60 of them.

There are few events in life that so mix anticipation with trepidation as the first day of school. In elementary school, I hoped to see friends who summer parted from me, but then I worried that the multiplication tables had changed over the break.

In high school, I was relieved that I wouldn’t be dodging Mom and Dad’s long list of summer chores, but I knew that I was too geek and not enough cool to sit with “the” crowd at lunch.

The rotten trick of college is that you have at least two first days each year. And the more letters you stack behind your name, the more of those first days you face.

As an undergraduate, I sweated that I would somehow so screw up that the draft board would send me an invitation to Mekong Tech. On the other hand, parties were never so memorable as when I was just under the drinking age.

The draft was gone by the time I was a junior. All I had to worry about is whether I would learn enough to actually get a job. But I had a beautiful coed on my arm and could look forward to decades of marital bliss. (That’s one dream that came true).

A sane person would have stopped there – as I did for 17 years. Graduate school has a way of sneaking up to you, though. Doubly so if you put a decade between master’s and doctoral programs.

The first day of term in grad school is a blur. Sometimes you have so many research projects you don’t notice the end of one semester and the beginning of another. You know you are on break, however, when you are franticly scrambling for whatever someone will pay you to make a dent in that tuition bill.

Of course, it’s a crapshoot whether the classes you signed up for will be anything like the titles in the catalog. I signed up for a “cultural studies” seminar to learn about minority audiences. I took a seat next to the guy in a Mao hat to learn how traditional media folk were ruining the world. Traditional Mao-hatless folk like me.

Now I’m a professor who not only faces two first days each year, but dons a cap and gown for two graduations each year. I like the graduation – its harvest time in higher ed. And after each graduation I swear I’m going to update my syllabi right away and have a complete set of PowerPoints ready long before I would see the next wave of students.

Yea, right. I’m a journalist. Skirting the finality of a deadline is in my DNA. The Journalism School is amazingly full of busy professors the weekend before class starts.

But just like in elementary school and my many other first days of school, the stresses of starting over now are more than balanced by the joys that come with them. I love that I’m on the other side of the pressure cooker. While I’m scrambling to prepare assignments, I get to watch the wide-eyed new undergraduates, the mentally-already-graduated seniors and the overwhelmed grad students find their places. And I get to offer advice, assurance and consolation. Because I know:

Been there, done that -- 60 times.

No. 3 in a paired-theme series with my daughter at

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sticks in the window

I never really thought I would see beauty in a winter-bared tree trunk. But I suppose it is really a matter of how you frame it.

I learned about forests in the Northwest, where the definition of “tree” is something very tall, very green and very determined to stay that way in the coldest of winters.

When I first saw Missouri in the spring, I was amazed by the lush green canopy that stretched over me like an organic tent. You don’t really walk through the forest in the Northwest – you thrash through the low fir and spruce limbs hopint you won’t get a handful of needles down your shirt. But Missouri is on the edge of the Great American Hardwood Forest – that leafy cathedral through which movie Indians crept silently and under which the village smithy stood.

Of course, the movies seldom have winter editions. Hardwoods are lush in the spring and then spectacular in the fall when they burst out into color – just before losing everything. By November, that great leafy cathedral has become a bunch of naked sticks.

But I have come to love those sticks. This time of the year, I frequently find myself staring out my window in Zen-like silence, just watching the sticks.

We have five huge windows that look out on the forest. Between me and the trees is a deck, a heated birdbath and a couple of feeders. And umpteen-dozen squirrels, as many woodpeckers, and troops of nuthatches, wrens, jays and finches who enjoy my largess. Plus the odd raccoon or woodchuck come just to torment my dog.

My wintry oaks and maples are not just figures in a still life. The are the cast of a full-fledged matinee feature.

The view of those “dead” sticks through my windows is an ever-changing passion play. I’m constantly amazed at how tree trunks so bare can shelter an ark-ful. In the Northwest, I could hear that birds were up there, but seldom saw more than a flash of feathers.

Here the lack of cover means neighbors of any species have little choice but to politely nod to each other. So I stand at my window and raise my coffee cup to the creature of the moment.

It’s a Midwest kind of thing. Not a bad one, at that.

No. 2 in a paired-theme series with my daughter at

Thursday, January 08, 2015

I’m a congenital writer.

Some people write because their third-grade teacher threatened to send them back to kindergarten if they didn’t finish their essay. For others, like me, the taskmaster is deep in their brain. We don’t write when we have to, we just have to write.

Which makes my predicament worse. I have writer’s block. For the past few months, I’ve dawdled, surfed the Web and pretended I had more important things to do rather than channeled my thoughts through the keyboard.

Oh, I’ve churned out the necessary reports, comments to students and emails that go along with being a college professor. I’ve even spent days agonizing through a research paper that should have taken a few hours. But the cathartic release that congenital writers long for, wasn’t there.

I know writer’s block all to well. For 25 years, I made my living piping prose from my brain to my fingertips as a newspaper journ
alist. Writer’s block is common in newsrooms. You see it in the glazed eyes of the reporter who paces the office and refills his coffee cup before it is empty. It was so universal that we would commonly talk about it or even implore “I’m blocked!. Someone help me out here.”

When I was the editor, the someone was me. My prescription usually was assign an emotion-fueling feature story. The best story is told by the person who lives it. The young woman who honors her mother by volunteering in the cancer ward. The youth with a deep passion for skateboarding. The old vet still haunted by memories.

As a reporter, you only have to repackage those stories. The “lede” jumps out at you somewhere during the interview and you find yourself rushing back to the keyboard to let the words flow.

Dam broken. Writer’s block cured – for now.

My daughter, Gillian, is also a professional writer and also suffering from writer’s block. Neither of us has now has a kindly editor to throw us a feature-story bone. But when we talked about it at Christmas, we devised our own plan.

Each of us will write a weekly essay on the same topic and post it on this blog. We will be forced to write, block or not.

This week’s topic was as simple as it was effective. Writers writing about writer’s block.

I think it is working. So I can say this with guarded optimism:

More to come…
No. 1 in a paired-theme series with my daughter at