A Birthday Surprise!
Miss Maggie May turned one-year-old this week.
I always thought it was strange and corny that people geeked-out over their dog’s birthday. Like it was their kid’s birthday. Like their dog’s birthday should be a national holiday and banks should be closed. It seemed silly and self-fulfilling and grandiose. I mean, it’s a dog. Dogs are unaware it’s their birthday. And they certainly don’t understand aging or mortality or the price of Hallmark cards.
Two days before Maggie May’s birthday, I spent $39 hard-earned American dollars at Petsmart on a peanut-butter filled bone, a rubber chew toy that resembled a stick, a bandanna decorated with the words “Happy Birthday” in blue, red, and yellow letters, a bag of vanilla and cabot cheese birthday treats shaped like “B”s, and a bacon flavored birthday cake (which sounds like some confection from The Great British Bake Off).
On her birthday, at 6:30 a.m., I hustled downstairs and barked, “Alexa, play “Birthday by The Beatles.”
“Here’s “Birthday” by The Beatles on Amazon music.”
As George Harrison’s guitar explodes in our living room, I open Miss Maggie May’s cage and like a twelve-year-old girl exclaim, “Happy Birthday!”
Maggie May ignores me, ignores Paul McCartney, licks herself, hustles out of her cage to the back door and suspiciously eyes a pair of trespassing birds sitting on our porch.
Cindy and I never wanted a dog. The training. The barking. The feeding. The cost. And the loss of dignity that occurs when, wearing a Target bag like a glove, you reach for a fresh turd on a neighbor’s lawn on a cold gray morning as the neighbor watches you behind a bedroom window.
Cindy and I have three active kids to raise. Life is busy. And, in a life stuffed with responsibilities, a dog would be another responsibility we would have to attend to.
But the kids wanted a dog. They bugged us to the point of breaking. So in the spring of 2019, Cindy and I gave the kids, what we thought, was an impossible challenge: to practice soccer for a supervised twenty minutes everyday for an entire year. Improve your dribbling, juggling, defending, passing, shooting. And if you can exhibit such dedication and responsibility you will have earned the right to a dog.
At first, the kids balked at the challenge. They said things like “impossible” and “not fair.” Cindy and I, rubbed our hands like cartoon villains convinced we’d just cooked up a foolproof scheme. But a year later, the kids completed the challenge. They out schemed us. We had no choice. We got a dog. (Shameless plug: Read more about the Soccer Challenge and the 50 lessons I hope my kids learned from the Challenge in Bedtime Stories for the Living.)
In just one year, Maggie May has solidified what I’ve suspected for years: Being a human is hard. We worry about death and taxes and money and disease and other people’s opinions and our cholesterol levels. We are anxious and worrisome. We want happiness but are attracted to misery. We self-sabotage. We hide from others. From ourselves. We value the wrong things. We question our self-worth. We want to be alone yet yearn for companionship. We demand answers yet fear asking questions. We crave freedom but need structure. We are contradictory and strange and tragic.
Our problem is that we’re too complex for our own good. We’re always trying to figure out what things mean. Because we’re either mired in the past and apprehensive about the future, our happiness is fleeting at best.
I want to be happy but I have a progressive brain disease. Movement and speaking are becoming more difficult. I’m losing dexterity in my hands. Handwriting is now a problem. Buttoning a shirt is now a problem. I’ve been told by doctors soon my unaided walking days might be numbered. I may need need a walker soon. Maybe a wheelchair. And when I take Maggie May out for her morning walk I often think about how many morning walks I have left.
I’m writing this post from an oversized recliner in my living room and, like most writing sessions, Maggie May is curled beside me. Keeping quiet company. Not too long ago, I didn’t want a dog. But to my surprise, she has quickly pattered her way into my fickle heart.
After I took this picture, Maggie May farted. Silent but deadly. I want to move but I’m comfortable. So I hold my breath, wait for the smell to pass, and feel the simple rhythm of her puppy-dog heart.
Yes, they may lack courtesy. And yes, they can be needy and stubborn and mischievous, but we love our dogs. And maybe we freely fill shopping carts at Petsmart because our dogs, like our favorite teacher, present us with new perspectives. They teach us to simplify our lives. That happiness doesn’t lie in lamenting the past or worrying about the future. That happiness can only be fetched in the present.
I want to welcome everyone who subscribed through the Book Funnel promotion. I hope my silly, dad brain brings you insight, comfort, and humor each Friday.
Through Book Funnel’s February promotions, I’ve teamed up with over 120 awesome authors who, for a limited time, are giving away their eBooks for FREE! These books are nonfiction and range from self-improvement to memoirs of resilience. Please checkout the links below and help emerging authors get discovered:
Portal into Knowledge:
Fabulous February Reads:
Poem of the Week: Golden Retrievals by Mark Doty
Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s—oh
joy—actually scared. Sniff the wind, then
I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?
Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you never can bring back,
or else you’re off in some fog concerning
—tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you. This shining bark,
a Zen master’s bronzy gong, calls you here,
entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.
This was one of my favorite poems to teach high school students. Because teenagers are, for better or worse, often attracted to complexity of adolescent life, they were too young to value simplicity. They couldn’t understand why a simple life, a present life, was so desired.
The speaker of this poem is a dog. A wise dog criticizing his master who appears “sunk in the past,” or “off in some fog concerning tomorrow.” I explained the dog was a Zen master with paws. And he was teaching you, the deeply flawed master, to let go of the past and future and enjoy the present. Most students sat in silence as I explained this. They were presently caged in a classroom, listening to a guy with spotty chin stubble, wearing wrinkled khakis, drone about an insightful dog when all they wanted to do is take a nap.
If you would like to share something with others (a photo, a poem, a song, a quote, etc.) that tosses some positive vibes into the world, please send your suggestions to me at email@example.com. Thanks!
For those in the Philadelphia Area: A limited number of signed copies of Bedtime Stories for the Living are now on sale at Commonplace Reader in Yardley, Pennsylvania. The Commonplace Reader is a local bookstore with a wide selection of books, super nice employees, and plenty of cozy reading nooks.
This Valentine’s Day, give Bedtime Stories for the Living to all the people you love or like or simply tolerate in your life.
If you happen to read BSFL, I would love an Amazon review! Due to some Jeff Bezos concocted algorithm, more book reviews lead to greater exposure. And greater exposure equates to higher book sales and as I wrote in BSFL, “college for three ain’t free.”
Are you a reader? Looking for your next good book to read or listen to? Check out my new page “Jay’s Book Shelf” for some book recommendations.
Here’s what I’m currently reading: Flashback Girl by Lise DeGuire
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Jay Armstrong is a writer, speaker, and a former award-winning high school English teacher. Despite being diagnosed with a rare neurological disease, that impairs his movement, balance, eyesight, and speech–Jay presses on. He hopes to help you find joy, peace, and meaning in life. For Jay, a good day consists of 5 things:
4. Hearing his three children laugh
5. Hugging his wife
(Bonus points for a dinner with his parents or a beer with his friends)
Jay hasn’t had a bad day in quite a long time.
You can also visit Jay at jayarmstrongwrites.com