I Am Tired of Apologizing for My Dogs

Golden Retriever mixes

It’s true that I do not have the most well-behaved dogs on the planet. In the state. On the mountain. Okay, okay, on my street of eight or so full-time mountain people houses.

They — our two nearly 100-pound golden retriever mixes — are notoriously bad dogs.

We thought they wouldn’t be.

We believed in the golden myth. That myth that plays out in every dog commercial and on every dog food bag and in every Cabela’s catalog. The myth that says, “Get a golden! They are always calm and cute … and the perfect dog to have by your side at all times.”

That myth is not just a myth. It’s a bold-faced lie, people.

Ours bark loudly when I let them out in the mornings and multiple times during the day.

They jump on visitors, and on us, when we come in the front door.

They steal socks and then shred them. (See also: Stuffed Animals)

skylobsterphotoThey are ace counter-surfers and have eaten, among other things, an entire, freshly baked cherry pie, a stick of butter, a loaf of bread, fresh trout, a stocking full of Christmas candy as well as the stocking, grilled hamburgers that were ready for our guests, a bouquet of tulips, and at least one filet mignon while it was actually cooking on the stove. Doggie Poison Control is on speed dial.

They tend to forget who’s in charge on our walks and hikes and have been known to pull me down the trail. God forbid we stumble upon a wild animal that’s in need of being chased. Or we stumble upon a wild animal that’s in need of being chased and we are walking on several layers of ice. In that event, life becomes a full-on sitcom moment.

One of them enjoys poop appetizers before dinner. The other scratches on the back glass door when she has been put outside and needs, needs, needs to be inside. One is notoriously grumpy past 6 p.m. The other sees nothing wrong with jumping all 100-pounds of his beast-self right onto your lap while you’re watching TV, as if he’s the size of a Chihuahua and you don’t have internal organs that can be easily smushed. Both of them retrieve laundry items and books from various parts of the house and then make you chase them to get them back. They both, when relaxed, can release a smell that the U.S. military should look into for use in warfare.

Oh, and they eat their dog beds. Every one of them.

It’s no coincidence that we call them hoodlums. (And, also, for the record, I have had dogs my entire life. Lots of them. I know how to train them to behave. These dogs are untrainable.)

But here’s the thing. I’m not going to apologize for them any longer. Why? Because they make me laugh. They make me happy. They make good, fluffy, hilarious pillows.

photoAnd I know that they have a reason for every bad thing they do.

When they bark, it’s because there is moose scent everywhere and a squirrel is usually taunting them from a tall pine tree above. They are programmed to tell us that these very acute dangers are present at all times. Who else is going to sound the alarm, really?

When they jump, it’s because they simply cannot contain their excitement that there are People Available. Right Now. To love. It’s so completely and totally unbelievable to have such good luck!

When they steal socks and shred them, it’s because they think it’s their job to do this. And they want to be good at their jobs. They’re overachievers, when you think about it.

When they grab food off the counter, it’s because it smells soooo good. As I tell my husband: Could you resist the world’s most awesome, decadent chocolate cake with homemade whipped icing just sitting there, inviting you to take a bite? Because every single ounce of food, I’m convinced, seems like the most wonderful thick, juicy T-bone steak to these pups. It’s kind of like how I would never, ever be able to refuse a perfectly ice-cold, fizzy Dr Pepper on a hot summer day.

They pull us on walks because they are confined to a backyard and a small home most of the day, every day. And confinement isn’t a great idea when you have more energy than a toddler on a six-pack of Red Bull. And they are dogs. They are meant to run free. To smell all of those smells. To check out every rock and tree, just in case something needs to be addressed. I understand that, I do. Some might say I’ve been known to pull those around me along for miles, too, when I get an idea in my head.

You see, as naughty as they are, I get these dogs. They march to their own beat. They won’t be tamed.

Of course, they can learn manners, like sit, but who really wants to be told what to do unless there is a bacon treat involved? I don’t.

And another thing. These furballs truly love — like with all their little hoodlum hearts — their people. I feel that way about my people, too.

They are Explorers. Clowns. Always-looking-for-trouble hounds. Cold-winter-night foot warmers with a zest for life.

So, I’m thinking maybe we could all learn a little something from my hoodlums. Sure, good behavior is nice and all. And they will likely be the best dogs ever when they are 15 years old and content to lie in the sun all day.

But isn’t there also something to be said for saying no to arbitrary rules?

Isn’t there something to be said for living exactly the kind of life you were meant to live? For doing things that make you happy every single day?

Life doesn’t guarantee you hours of great belly rubs and weeks of adventure in a mountain forest. You gotta seize that shit for yourself.

Colorado Aspens: Just One Reason Why I Love Early Fall in the Rockies

colorado aspens in the fall

Even when I lived in South Texas, fall was my favorite time of year. Because despite the fact that you couldn’t really wear a sweater of any kind until December (if at all), there was the excitement of Friday Night Lights and Saturday afternoon Texas Aggie football, the first cold front of the season, pumpkins for carving, my mom’s chili, and the chance that she might bake one of her world-renowned apple or peach pies.

But here in the high Rockies, fall is even better. There’s a briskness to the air that can’t really be described, only felt — even when the sky is a bright blue and a cloud is nowhere to be found. Bear sightings increase because they are in heavy foraging mode to prepare for hibernation. There is nearly always the scent of wood-burning stoves in the evenings. The foxes and coyotes begin to get their thicker coats. The birds are gorging on my sunflower seeds. And the squirrels and chipmunks are climbing the lodgepole pines, picking out the centers of pine cones and tossing the cones down to the ground in what sometimes feels like a battle zone in the forest.

And, of course, the aspens turn the most saturated, breathtaking colors of red and gold. Our fall colors don’t last nearly as long as they do in the East, but while they’re here, they are brilliant.

Here are a few shots from around the neighborhood right now. And the leaves aren’t even at their fall peak yet!

(And yes, I know it’s not officially fall yet until September 22. But don’t tell that to the bears.)

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How Do You Define Home?

photoWe’ve settled back into mountain life now after about two months. The weather has been a beautiful summer mix of cloudless blue skies and 75 degrees, and cool mountain rain that rolls in from the West in the afternoons.

It’s been an especially good wildflower season. Even as September approaches, there are still carpets of white, yellow and lavender mountain daises and large swaths of bright purple fireweed. The sweet scent of pink and violet clover fills the air on our walks.

The monsoon moisture has also kept the forest floors thick with green, and the meadows are thigh-high in bunchgrasses and cattails. Trout are jumping out of the crystal-clear mountain lakes, daring us to try to reel them in.

And in just our short time back, we’ve already seen an abundance of wildlife, including moose, black bears, foxes, coyotes, a mountain lion, rabbits, and beavers — not to mention the plethora of birds and chipmunks and squirrels who keep the forest humming.

It’s a bit like living in a nature photographer’s dream. And, honestly, it’s where I feel the most alive.

But is it home?

Obviously, I haven’t always lived in the mountains. I grew up in the flatlands of South Texas. And I love those flatlands.

I love the people, the stories, the food, the history, the music, the Texas sky. The smell of mesquite-smoked barbecue. The feel of crisp, dried grass under your bare feet on a hot summer day. The mixing of Mexican, German, Czech and other cultures. The homemade tamales. The kolaches. The sound of polka music on the local radio station. The click-click-buzz-pop of grasshoppers flicking about and attaching themselves to the porch screen door.

I love all the little idiosyncrasies that make that place special. The small-town courthouses and main streets. The Lone Star beer, the dancehalls, the oil wells, the old churches, the Stetsons and belt buckles and boots, the cattle and horses lazing under hundred-year-old oak trees.

Did I mention the food?

And of course, most importantly, all of my family members, including my Mom and Dad — whom I cherish — still live there. In the house I grew up in.

But is that home?

I’ve always thought of “home” as a place where you feel most comfortable. Where you can wrap yourself in familiarity and know that someone always has your back. A place you know like the back of your hand.

And in those terms, South Texas is all that and more.

Yet.

Here feels right for me, and it has for a long time. Like in a good novel, this particular cabin and mountain have become the physical place where the narrative arc of my life moves forward. It’s as much a part of my story as my friends, my job, my writing, my dogs, and even my son and husband. I think that’s why I felt so lost when we moved away for a couple of years.

If you don’t count those years we spent in the foothills, we’ve lived on this mountain now for 11 years or so. That’s long enough to feel that sense of familiarity and comfort, right? Instead, here, I find myself wrapped in something much different.

A kind of wildness maybe? A feeling that there are systems in place in this world that are much larger than myself? A feeling of wanting to uncover all the things I don’t know yet?

Yes, all of those things.

Some people say home is wherever their spouse or children are, that just being with them is all it takes. But I’ve learned from experience that even though you are in the presence of people you love more than anything in the world, there can still be a hole … a missing piece of the puzzle.

So what does define home?

Is it the place that warms your threadbare soul, like my mama’s chili on a rare cool day in South Texas? A place that knows who’ve you’ve always been?

Or is it a place that pushes you, like a rippling and rushing mountain creek full to its banks from spring runoff? A place that knows who you’re still becoming?

I don’t have the answer. But I’d love to hear your thoughts, too. Meanwhile, I have firewood to chop. Snow’s in the forecast.

 

PS: This is one of the themes explored in my novel, Blue Straggler. I keep hoping that, through writing, I’ll figure some of this stuff out.

colorado moose

Glimpses of a Colorado Life … on One Summer Evening

I live in Colorado. On a mountain. In a forest. Winters are harsh and beautiful here. But summer? Summer is every word I can’t seem to find … and every cliche (paradise, bliss) that I try not to use. It’s 70 degrees, blue skies, and a light breeze that rustles the aspen leaves around you. It’s brief afternoon rain, cold as ice on your skin, as storms move over the Divide. It’s wildflowers thick as blankets. It’s the call of a Stellar Jay. The howl of a coyote. The sunlight streaming through tall pines.

It’s abundance. And yet, it’s more.

This evening, as we do most days, my husband and son and I took the dogs for a long walk around the neighborhood. I tried to capture some of the beauty and magic around us in the following photos. I don’t think a lens can capture what it feels like, but perhaps it can at least capture a little of what we see.

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Recycling

We’re moving again, back to our home at the top of a mountain in Colorado, after two years in the Denver foothills. It’s been a short experiment, and there have been some good things about it. But mostly, I can’t wait to get back home to my cabin.

With this move, though, I’m dedicated to a minimalistic approach to what we bring with us. I want a fresh start in my old home, and I want to leave behind things that are dragging me down, and ones that no longer serve a purpose in my life.

Jeans from 2008 that don’t fit anymore? Donated. A desk that I never actually use for writing at? Gone. Bowls that are chipped and stained and oh by the way I didn’t really like to begin with? Off to Goodwill.

I also just sold an antique hutch I bought right after a life-changing breakup. It had been a project that took me several weekends to finish back then, nearly 20 years ago. I remember working on it in the Texas summer heat, sweat dripping into my eyes. It had kept my mind off how badly I was falling apart inside, and it gave me something to put all of that hurt into. And it gave me a sense of pride that I could tackle refinishing the piece on my own, without him. I brought the hutch with me when I moved to Colorado — just me and my dogs — partly because I needed a reminder almost every day that I was strong and capable.

But I have other reminders of that now. I don’t need the hutch anymore. And it doesn’t need me.

I also took a huge step and recycled about 30 years’ worth of my feelings and thoughts (and bad poetry). I started journaling when I was in 3rd grade and stopped only during the college years. (Possibly due to not wanting any evidence to exist of what may or may not have happened at the Dixie Chicken in College Station, Texas.)

Recently, I flipped through all those journals, one by one. I could feel the pain dripping from the pages of my adolescent and teen years, when I felt so alone and so terribly ugly. And I caught my breath reading through the years of clinical depression, the years of fighting unexplained infertility, the years of losing my grandparents and saying good riddance to friends I thought would never let me down.

I suppose I’d held onto these journals, thinking they would inspire my writing at some point, thinking they might hold important insights some day. But all they are now are reminders of darkness when all I want to feel is light. So I ripped them into millions of pieces and threw them into the recycling bins.

I did choose to keep a few journals … the ones documenting my decision to move to Colorado, the ones reminding me how and why I fell in love, against my strongest judgment (I wasn’t interested in marriage!), with my husband. And the ones filled with the limitless joy and amazement when our son came into our lives.

It feels good to let go. It feels really, really good.

A Walk and a Talk in the Mountains

I had the day off from work on Friday, and even though my husband and I were both still feeling sick from a Colorado Super Bug going around, I announced I was heading up to our cabin on the mountain. I needed to be there, to take one of my old walks that I took daily for more than a decade. It’s the same way I feel about Texas about twice a year, too. That driving need to be back in touch with some basic part of who I am.

My husband has been up to the cabin several times since we’ve moved, but I have stayed away. I knew I’d likely tie myself to a pine tree and he’d have to peel my arms away or chop down the tree to get me to leave. And frankly, it played out kind of just like that.

On our walk, we talked about moving back. It’s a tough thing, marriage. And parenting. You just never know for sure what the right move is. You can guess, and you can hope to high heaven you’re making the best choices. And then you can pick up the pieces and put them back together when they turn out to be the wrong ones.

I’m still not sure what we’ll do. I want to do what’s best for our son. His needs come first. But it’s all so murky, that determining what’s best.

Yes, it’s dangerous to live and drive up there on the mountain. The drive to school alone would be trying … about 50 minutes one way. And yet, I have to also believe that living in such a raw, untamed area would feed his soul, too. Right?

And let’s not forget his newfound love, or obsession, with fishing. At our cabin, he could walk out the back door and fish in a beautiful creek within minutes. And there are three private stocked lakes, too. He could be ice-fishing within 5 minutes during the winter. And doesn’t the opportunity to witness bears and moose and mountain lions and stellar jays and golden eagles in your back yard have profound educational value?

I’m not completely crazy, by the way. I know life on the mountain is tougher. The elements (wind, cold, blizzards) demand that you develop survival intelligence, that you respect Mother Nature in all her greatness. That you learn the value of hard work, like chopping wood, that ends up keeping you warm all winter. You learn that life isn’t just one big easy paved suburban street. You learn that sometimes the power can go out for days, but that’s okay because you kick ass at Scrabble and keeping a fire going 24 hours a day.

But are those lessons he really needs to learn in today’s society? Shouldn’t I be trying to create the easiest life for him? So that his biggest worries are doing well in school and making friends with kids, not foxes?

Or maybe we should just forget the mountain for now and instead live abroad for a year or two. Let a foreign country shape the kiddo instead of life at 10,500 ft. Maybe then my unsettled feeling would be replaced by excitement for a new adventure. Of course, there’s that little problem called money to fund such a thing, and let’s face it … we don’t exactly have Eat, Pray, Love kind of reserves going on.

I don’t have all the answers yet. But I’ll leave you with a few photos I took while we were on our walk … showcasing the Colorado Rockies in transition. The gorgeous aspen leaves are all gone, but the lake isn’t completely frozen over. The snow is on the mountain and some of the trails, but water is still trickling through the waterfalls. Paradise to me.

Colorado mountains

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pine tree in the mountains

pine trees reflecting in water and ice

Poetry and Irony

I was looking through some old writing files tonight and found a poem I wrote back in 2003. Sadly, it reminded me of the recent catastrophic flooding folks here in Colorado experienced last month. Isn’t it sad that sometimes everything you know has to be ripped away from you before you can begin to rebuild?

Bed Unmade

Drying, cracking, ribbon like,

a creek bed unvisited

by the very one who owns it.

Aching, looking, a young girl’s search

timelessness, quietness, seeping in.

Rocks and mold, age-old formations,

pebbles between her middle toes,

insects crawling among the lines.

Then rainfall arrived

and arrived, and stayed late;

foaming clay-mud swirls

filling a crisp canvas

and erased the lines

betrayed the ants

silenced the quiet

and swallowed the land,

unmade the bed,

sheets all torn

pillows swimming

only to slip back and taunt again.

My One-Year Report on Living Like Normal People

07-james-peakIt’s been over a year now since we moved from our cozy log cabin, located at the top of a mountain in the Colorado Rockies, at 10,500 ft. above sea level, down to a mere 6,800 ft. in the foothills southwest of Denver.

This was supposed to be a one-year experiment with living without the dangerous driving conditions, the 5-ft. snowstorms, the year-round shoveling, the need for professional gear to take a walk around the neighborhood in February. It was intended to be a glimpse into things most people take for granted, things like a garage, trash service, newspaper delivery, a grocery store and gas station nearby, the certainty of running water and electricity. (Read about the move here.)

And it appeared to be the perfect compromise: Still living in a log-cabin-ish house, in a pine forest, with views of the Continental Divide if you squint to the west from our deck.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

For a normal person maybe.

For me, it’s been hell. I mean, don’t get me wrong … it’s an easy hell. A pretty comfortable hell. (Turns out, it’s no big deal to run out of toilet tissue down here. And the snow — get this — melts after a storm!) And my garden was lush and productive this year, unlike even our year we had a greenhouse up on the mountain, before the bear tore it down.

And yet, I’ve been in mourning.

It’s hard to put it into words, sometimes. Because it’s more than the hiking trails that were out my door, and the snow and the mountain view and the high-summer days that hit 75 at their warmest. (Did y’all know it gets damn hot down here in July? Especially with no air conditioning in a house?)

I miss the solitude and seclusion of my mountain. I miss neighbors that keep their distance and don’t freak about a dog that barks at herds of deer on occasion. (I’m particularly bitter about that one. See previous post. Animal Control and several certain people who live near here with their panties in a perpetual wad can kiss my aspens!)

Oh yeah. I miss the sound of aspen leaves shaking in the wind before they fall. And the silence. I miss that you can lie awake at night up there and not hear anything but your own breathing and maybe the stars moving up above. I miss how the raw world up there influenced my writing in ways foothills living just doesn’t do.

I miss the challenges of seemingly easy things, like getting to your front door in January after being gone all day and oh by the way there’s now 3 feet of snow there.

I miss how life at 10,500 ft. pushed me, every day, in new ways. I miss how alive that fresh, thin air up there makes me feel. I miss the creek and the lakes — they felt like ours alone. I miss evening walks when you didn’t have to worry about cars hitting you (only mountain lions out for dinner. And I can deal with mountain lions better than humans, most days.)

I even miss the nights when the electricity was out and it got so cold that we had to sleep in the great room by the woodstove, to make sure it kept burning all night so the pipes wouldn’t freeze.

If it were up to just me, we’d be back up on the mountain right now, enjoying the beginning of winter. But it’s not up to just me anymore. My husband likes it down here. My son misses the mountain, but he’s found a little tribe of friends down here at this neighborhood school, and his smiles are priceless. The commute to my new job from the old house would be painful. And let’s face it, moving is expensive.

So we’re staying through next summer at least. In the meantime, I have writer’s block when it comes to fiction writing, and the liquor store is only a few minutes away. Is this how Hemingway became an alcoholic?

Don’t answer that.

 

 

Sledding Fail … With a Texas Accent

Like most moms of six-year-olds, I am constantly laughing at the things my son does and says. I feel like I should be following him around with a video camera every day just to capture and preserve all of the funny antics. (Perhaps to pull out and remember how cute he was when he’s a teenager and testing my last nerve.)

Luckily, my husband is a video-ing nut case and often DOES film our son. Such was the case this past weekend when a great snowstorm dumped a ton of fresh powder, and the kiddo decided to go sledding in the back yard.

The following video was the last take of many, where the kiddo was performing in his own version of the X Games, complete with commentary after each sled run. In this last run, he catches some air. But what’s even funnier is his Texas accent when he’s talking to his viewers afterward.

Have I mentioned this kid visits Texas quite a lot but has been raised in the Colorado mountains? I don’t know where he gets this drawl from.

This Serenity Break Is Brought to You by the Beauty of Colorado

5photoSo many of my friends back home always ask when I’m moving back. “Don’t you miss Texas?” they ask. And yep, I do. I miss many things about where I grew up. But here in Colorado, I can breathe. That’s the best way to explain it, and it has little to do with the air quality and everything to do with my need for this kind of beauty. (photos taken at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs last weekend).

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