The Rules of the Game

Max likes games, but since I never really took the time to teach him how to play, he doesn’t know how any typical dog games are supposed to go.

Or maybe he does know and he just insists on playing by his own rules.

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Every now and then I get the urge to try to play fetch with him. It usually goes something like this: I walk out into the yard wherever he last left the ball. He gets really excited because I’m doing something he could potentially be involved in. (It’s important to note that this is the same level of excitement he shows when I sit on the couch -not something he can really be involved in-, or when I start making dinner -again, not something he can be involved in. So, his level of excitement is not a good indicator of actual involvement…)

After I pick up the ball, he focuses solely on it. I think, “Cool, we are doing this.” And I throw the ball. Max runs after it, but instead of bringing it back to me as a RETRIEVER probably should, he takes it away to a different part of the yard and lays down with it.

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Max clearly does not understand how the game fetch works and how fun it is to keep up the cycle of chasing and retrieving. What I’ve begun to suspect Max does understand is how fun keep away is.

Either Max is really clueless (and I might answer that differently depending on the day) or Max thinks that fetch is “keep away.”

I can’t help but come to the conclusion that Max is legitimately playing a different game than I am.

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And it is not just in fetch/keep away. Every now and then I get the urge to play tug of war with Max. It usually goes something like this. I see a toy where Max has left it on the living room floor. I pick it up. Max gets really excited because I’m doing something he could potentially be involved in…

After I pick up the toy, he focuses on it and I think, “Cool, let’s do this.” I extend the toy to him, he latches on and we do start tugging for a while. It is clear that Max knows he is not supposed to let go. Things are going a little better than fetch at this point.

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Max is pretty rough with the toy, and I’ve noticed that he usually readjusts his grip to catch the weakest part. It’s a weird strategy.

Then, if I let go (to make him think he has a chance, of course), he runs off with the toy and starts chewing on it to try to rip it to shreds. That is not tug of war.

Max clearly does not understand how the game tug of war works and how fun it is to have whole, not chewed up toys, to play it with.

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I’ve begun to suspect that Max thinks that tug of war is actually “tear stuff up.” And he legitimately likes to play the game tear stuff up with me – allowing me to hold in place what he wants to tear up.

Max and I are simply not playing the same games.

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Now this could be a nice lesson in which I learn how valuable it is to take someone else’s point of view and see how the world is fundamentally different for them than it is for me. I would otherwise have no clue why Max is such a weirdo when it comes to normal dog games. But in stepping into his paws for a second, I can begin to see this other possibility.

But I’m just competitive enough, that the first lesson I actually learned from all this is that playing different games means that we each think the other person is losing really badly. Max is owning me in keep away because I just keep throwing the ball away, and I think he stinks at fetch. Max is destroying it in tear stuff up (literally), and I’m just frustrated that he has ripped up another toy. If we are not playing by the same rules, no one really wins…if winning is even really the point of such interactions.

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I have found this to be an important lesson. And I can’t help but think that different segments of society understand each other less and less because we don’t even agree on the rules of the game. Of course, the issues that lead to the division we see are by no means games, but still it is easy to think we are winning if we are investing in values fundamentally different from each other.

I’m going to be more direct than normal here. I think President Trump is losing when he fundamentally misunderstands a peaceful protest about real racial injustice in our country or when he tramples on the civil rights of lgbtq persons, etc. And I have come to understand that he and many of his supporters think me and others who hold similar opinions are losing when we don’t support what he apparently sees as American values.

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Now, Max has not taught me a solution to this divisiveness…at least not yet. I think it goes beyond merely trying to understand one another, because this stuff isn’t a game. And even if we agree on the rules, I don’t see how competing to win will help those among us who really need help.

I look forward to that lesson with the solution, hopefully sooner than later. But for now, Max has taught me why he and I seem so disconnected sometimes. And he has taught me that both of us will always lose if we aren’t playing by the same rules.

So, thank you Max for teaching me that sometimes you really are playing by different rules of the game. Thank you for helping me understand some elements of the disconnect I see around me, and I hope that you will soon teach me how to address that division.

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Smile

Either Max is a naturally happy dog, or he has an uncanny ability to smile for the camera. I find his goofy smiles pretty infectious, and I hope you do to.

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Of course, Max has the golden standard of smiles.

 

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He’s no rock-weiler, but he charms all the fans with that (s)waggin’ smile.

 

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Sweet dreams are made of…cheese!

 

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But sometimes, his smiles are pawsitively creepy…

 

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Clap along if you feel like a room without a ruff ruff!

 

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Sometimes, his smile is a little too fur-rocious,

 

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But he’s never hesitant to turn that frown upside down.

 

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…mutt as well have a good time!

 

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Must. Max-imize. Smiles.

 

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And at the end of the day, he’s always looking quite fetching.

Thank you Max for your smiles – they brighten my day. I hope you keep smiling and bringing more and more joy to this world, at least until the day we can all smile as authentically as you.

P.S. This also pairs nicely with Jay-Z’s “Smile”, for those who have Tidal or other access to it.

Escape

When I was growing up, I had a dachshund named Peanut. Peanut was my first dog, I got him when I was two years old, and he stayed with us until I was in high school, so he was with me through most of the time I was figuring myself out.

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Peanut was around to comfort me in the busy school days and to enjoy with me the lazy summer days. He was with me as I thought and dreamed and wondered. As any child, I often dreamed of different things I could be when I grew up. Paleontologist was the front runner for a long time, but even in those days there would be moments when, while sitting with Peanut, I began to wish I could just be a dog.

From my perspective, Peanut had an easy life. He got to sleep whenever he wanted (I really liked sleep back then), he didn’t have to do any homework, and he got treats pretty regularly (my mom spoils all her dogs).

It was a no-brainer to me – the ultimate dream was to be a dog and live the carefree dog life.

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I don’t have many lazy summer days anymore, but when I get a chance to watch Max resting by the window, it takes me back to those childhood dreams. Especially when so much crap is happening all around the world and we seem to keep circling around hate as if it were our tail that we are chasing, I begin to wish that I could be a dog, curled up by the window, carefree and ignorant of all the problems that still suffocate our world.

Being a dog would be such a beautiful escape.

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And I feel that way as a privileged white man, who for all purposes does have the ability to escape all the craziness. I can choose not to be bothered with it. That reality in itself is a big part of the crappiness, and I try my best to address it head on and not shy away from it.

I cannot know what it is like in other people’s shoes, but I do trust the voices who cry out because they cannot escape the oppression, they cannot simply walk away or ignore the structural racism and sexism and all other evils that make up our society.

And yet I cannot shake the desire to just escape it all. I cannot deny the inclination to ignore it all like a dog.

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But Max teaches me that such escapism is not an option. He reminds me that I am one with the ability to walk out the door, I am one with the responsibility to interact with that society I sometimes don’t want to be a part of, I am one with words and actions that can really make a difference in small or larger contexts.

And so if I just sit at the window watching the world go by, my inaction would make me complicit in the problems. Even if I sit there and sigh at what I see, I am not making anything better until I escape the escapism that nags at my tepid mind.

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Max has taught me that I am one who can speak out against the hate, or be complicit it in, but I am not one who should escape it. Max may have that right, but I do not.

So thank you Max, for teaching me that as tempting as it looks, I should not escape into the carefree life you live. Thank you for reminding me about my responsibility to speak up and act out in this crazy world.

Chasing Tail

Sometimes Max can act in the most stereotypical dog ways. I can’t help but laugh every time he pees on a fire hydrant or bolts after a squirrel.

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And of course, he even chases his tail.

It’s a little surprising when he does chase his tail, because it never makes sense. It’s a sudden outburst of irrational behavior that gets him nowhere. And it’s dangerously out of control – I know he can’t see where he is going and he gets uncomfortably close to coffee tables and bookshelves as he is whipping his whole body around and around.

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When I watch him do it, I usually think several things:

Dogs are so weird.

I hope he doesn’t knock anything down or hit his head on something.

I’m glad I don’t do anything like that.

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And yet, Max has me wondering – surely I don’t do anything like that, right? Surely I don’t irrationally go around and around in circles not really getting anywhere.

Unfortunately, Max may be teaching me that I am not so different, that I too may be stuck in an irrational cycle of unhealthy, unhelpful movement.

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It definitely seems like my country is. We seem to be circling around hate and violence as if it were our tail that we are chasing and can’t quite seem to get. We keep chasing and chasing ourselves instead of moving forward. The evil spreads and we wonder why we didn’t see it right after collapsing from another round around ourselves.

In this tail chasing, I worry that we keep trying the same things over and over again, thinking we will finally catch the evil around us, and yet we find ourselves ever chasing it.

I worry that we arm ourselves with sharper teeth or fiercer barks to no avail. In fact, while we tell ourselves those tools are necessary for catching the evil, it seems that they only hurt those trying to help us see what is really going on.

And I worry that we begin to think that such tail chasing is either just a reality of being human or that it is a game.

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And then Max makes another lap around himself and I begin to realize that I too am guilty of chasing my tail. It is not just the country – it is me.

Every time a black person is murdered and I stop short at reading all the articles about it, I have irrationally gone around and around and not gotten anywhere. I have become complicit in staying busy but not rooting out evil.

Every time I complain about decisions my elected representatives have made but fail to write or visit them, I chase what I think is just the state of things beyond my control, instead of making use of the access afforded to me.

Ever time I hear a sexist micro-aggression, and I laugh it off as a joke or ignore it for fear of confrontation, I chase my tail expecting the problem to resolve itself while I look distracted.

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Max has taught me that chasing my tail gets me nowhere and is both irrational and dangerous. Chasing my tail when real hate and injustice and violence are present means that such evil will only continue to go on and I’ll probably hurt myself while ignoring it. There’s a lot more to do in speaking out and transforming the words and symbols I and my community use, but ceasing the tail chasing is at least the first step.

So thank you Max for teaching me how problematic it is to chase my tail instead of dealing with the real problems around me. Thank you for teaching me how I’ve been irrationally circling around that evil but not really dealing with it. I hope you can show me a better way forward.

Barking

Max is overall a very quiet dog. The only times I’ve heard him bark at home are when he gets really excited and wants to play. It’s the kind of bark that is the result of excitement bubbling over uncontrollably. Those barks are surprising, but I really like them.

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Max is also relatively quiet when we go in public. There are some dogs in our neighborhood who bark like crazy when we walk by. Compared to them, Max is almost monk-like. But lately, he has started barking back more often.

And the more Max barks, the more I realize not all barks are the same.

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There’s Max’s playful, excited bark, which sometimes emerges on walks too. Then there’s his protective, warning bark –  a low rumbly growl that slowly builds to a solid staccato utterance. This comes out very infrequently when he perceives a dog to be an actual threat. I don’t know whether it’s meant to be a warning for me or for the other dog, or probably both, but it is both fierce and protective.

Similar to this warning bark, Max also has a bark that is straight up violent. It is sometimes hard to distinguish between the two, but this bark is much more aggressive and I’ve only seen it once or twice (and I intentionally say see it, because it involves his whole body – he gets tense and lunges as he barks).

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He’s also got his somewhat mindless responsive bark – the bark that sounds like a stuck record, repeating the exact same tone over and over. This bark comes out when there’s just a lot of other barking noise around him and he feels compelled to join in.

And Max has a bark that is almost more of a whimper – a bark to let me know something is not right with him. I’ve heard this when he steps on something sharp or when he gets sick and needs to alert me to let him out. It’s his cry for help bark.

So Max has his playful barks, his threatening barks, his violent barks, his noisy barks, and his cry for help barks. Max has taught me that not all barks are the same.

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And yet, it’s easy to forget that very important reality when I turn my attention to people. People make a lot of noise – we have many cries for help or violent utterances. And when it is not my own noise, it is hard to remember that not all noise, cries, yells are the same. It is easy to confuse the alerting yells from the violent ones, but it is terribly problematic when we do.

It is problematic and wrong to lump together the cries of injustice with the cries of hate – they are distinctly different and in fact one causes the other (hint – it’s the hate that causes the injustice).

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This important point of not lumping all barks or cries together was made very apparent to me when walking Max the other day. We wound up walking at a very popular time of day, so we passed many other dogs. And Max had a different reaction to all of them. With some he shared a playful bark and I knew not to be worried. With others he started to get threatening and I knew we needed to move on – I knew to pull him and silence that kind of barking.

Max has taught me that some kinds of barks are important while some need to be muzzled. I do all I can to silence Max in his violent barks or his barks just for the sake of more noise, and yet I listen closely and act on his behalf when I hear the playful barks or the barks signaling my attention. Likewise, some types of human utterance are important and need to be heeded (the cries of injustice, the cries that black lives matter) and some screams need to be hushed (the cries of hate, the cries of racist ideology and the cries of those supporting confederate symbols and monuments that perpetuate that racist ideology).

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Max has also taught me that sometimes I really have to know the dog or person to pick up on the subtle differences between the barks or cries. I have lived with Max several years, so I know his barks well. I can tell in a moment what kind of bark it will be. But when I encounter another person’s dog it is not always so easy. Some dogs come across as more aggressive, but it is just because I don’t know them well. I believe the same is true of many people I know.

Max has taught me that sometimes I need to take time to get to know those who cry in order to know what kinds of cries they are uttering.

But only sometimes. Because it’s still pretty easy to tell when a strange dog is barking in a way that indicates he wishes me harm verses a dog who is barking because something is wrong. I believe the same is true of many people I know, especially since for people I can tell the content of what is being shared. In the cases mentioned above, it seems all too easy to tell the difference between the types of cries.

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I’d do well to remember that not all canine barks or human cries are the same. I’d do better to attend closely to the cries of injustice and to do all I can to silence the cries of hatred.

Thank you Max, for teaching me that not all canine barks or human cries are the same. Thank you for helping me learn how better to attend to the barks that something is wrong or the cries of injustice. And thank you for helping me learn how to hush the barks of violence or the cries of hate.

The Importance of Being Max

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I took Max out to my grandma’s lake cabin for a night. It’s a quiet little cluster of houses around a small body of water and is a great place for some peaceful reflection.

Or, a great place to go absolutely crazy, which is exactly what Max did.

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He’s been out to this cabin a couple of times before and he always gets so excited. Usually I can’t even drag him close to water (he’s a weird Golden Retriever in a lot of ways), but at this particular lake, he immediately runs across the lawn to take a dip in the water.

He even interacts with the water in his unique Max way – he doesn’t jump in and he doesn’t really swim. Taking a dip is the best way I can describe how he wades out until the water covers his back, but he can still stand on the ground, and then he walks around in the water.

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Max proceeds to come out of the water so that he can roll around in the dirt and grass, only to go back in the lake immediately. And then repeat it all over and over and over.

By the time we left, Max was filthy, matted, and really smelly. But he was also happy and fulfilled.

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While I was a little confused by his actions and frustrated by how filthy he got, I also learned something from Max’s frolicking around the lake. Max taught me the importance of being myself.

When Max was let loose from leash and the confines of living in a city and when he was free to enjoy the day however he saw fit, Max was authentically his weird self. Max usually does not have many constraints even when he is home, but there was something about our time at the lake that made him come alive in a way I often don’t see.

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Max taught me the importance of authentically enjoying life in a way that cuts through any expectations I load upon myself. I know I often constrain myself with arbitrary rules of what I think I should be doing that begin to mask who I truly am. But Max taught me that we are all unique and appreciate things in our own way and that weird diversity is good. Max assured me that how I see and appreciate the goodness of the world is different from him and a lot of people, but it is something to be celebrated.

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Max also taught me that sometimes I have to get out of my routine to express myself in this authentic way, and it is well worth it to have such opportunities. But just as Max carried a lot of the stench and dirt of the lake back with him, he also taught me that such earnest living is important to develop throughout life.

We eventually had to leave the lake, and I am aware that there is not always such a safe space to be as vulnerably authentic as Max was. It’s hard to be earnest all the time. While that reality is tragic, I am encouraged by the ways that, with the right community around him, Max continues to be himself at home. When there is not a lake sanctuary to retreat to, it may take a little more effort to sustain a space of safety, but Max has taught me that that work is important too. It is important to establish that safe space for myself and as much as I can to create spaces for others to express and love themselves.

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Max’s authentic expression of self is rooted in a sense of security, but it also involves some sense of daring. I am continually inspired by the ways Max dares to be himself every day, even when he acts really weirdly.

So thank you Max for teaching me the importance of earnestly loving and expressing myself so that I can more authentically connect with the people and world around me. And thank you for teaching me to create the spaces that allow such earnest living to happen.

Grounded (ver. 2)

Max and I have moved around quite a bit the past several years, but we have now lived in our current house and neighborhood for about a year. We’ve walked along the streets at least 350 times. Max has sniffed and gone to the bathroom on countless square feet of the land that makes up this little area in which we live.

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I think it took Max a while to understand this was our home. He’s traveled enough to know that sometimes we go places for only a little while. But after a couple of months, he seemed to be a little more comfortable here. He knew the routes we could walk and the smells he might smell. And now, after a year, we are both pretty grounded in this neighborhood.

While Max has taught me the importance of going on adventures and seeing new sights, he has also taught me the importance of being rooted in a community. Max seems to delight in knowing the people and places around him and he seems to appreciate the growing connection with those people and places. That delight may stem from the fact that he occasionally gets a treat from someone who knows him, but I think it also includes the joy that comes from a sense of belonging.

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Because we have moved around a lot, Max and I have had to practice planting our roots quickly so that we can be connected to the neighborhood. And Max has taught me how to best approach quick and meaningful groundedness.

Max is open to all people and eager to get out and connect with them. He greets strangers as warmly as he greets me when I come home at the end of the day.

Max is also unapologetically authentic. He is his curious, eager self in every situation. While I sometimes worry about his unabashed approach to new people (and animals), he doesn’t worry about it, and because he is naturally authentic it seems always to work out well.

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Max’s openness and authenticity continually remind me that being grounded involves connections and vulnerability. His eagerness and curiosity have taught me that being rooted means stretching out but also stopping when something is interesting and life giving. Max has taught me to be myself and to be open to all around me so that I can be more a part of where I live.

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And Max is content with the roads we walk everyday. He takes them just as they are and doesn’t expect anything spectacular. He is happy to be here and teaches me to practice my own happiness by exercising contentment. Sure, he likes to see new things and to go new places, but he has taught me the importance of finding a healthy rhythm both of going out of my comfort zone to experience new things and of connecting more deeply with a particular neighborhood. It is a rhythm we are still working out, but Max has shown me the value of practicing it.

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Ultimately, Max has taught me the importance of investing in where we live and really knowing what is going on so that we might be a vital part of it. Max’s groundedness has brought greater joy to his life and (I think) greater value to the neighborhood.

So thank you Max for teaching me to be grounded in our neighborhood. Thank you for teaching me to be open to this community and eagerly to set roots in it.