Monday, April 11, 2016

Five wide grins and a joker.

I met two boys last Saturday. Each was cute and friendly. One was an easy going sweetie; the other, a high-energy prankster. I learned that both of them had conquered very trying times, and I marveled at how well they were doing. I respected them. I fell a little bit in love with each of them. They were both my kind of guy: the underdog.

In fact, they were dogs. Cherry and Johnny were former fighting dogs saved from a wretched life with Michael Vick, and I got to know them in the documentary The Champions. 

Matt and I chose the film for our stay-at-home date night last Saturday. From our Netflix watchlist, we watched the cover art pass by: The Revenant, a documentary on Tower Records, the Amy Winehouse story, and some DeNiro or Pacino movie with a lot of vowels in the title. As Matt scrolled, The Champions was about to disappear into the left-hand side of the screen. I knew I'd be no kind of pit bull advocate if I didn't watch it. Here goes. I hope I don't have to see anything I can't unsee. 

While the film played, our dog, Private Joker, napped on the shaggy maize circular rug I got for ten bucks at my neighborhood's annual front-yard sale. We own the rug but not the original hardwood floors underneath—so original that the gaps between the boards gather bits of dust and dog hairs. This house, a "4-gambrel historic home with pocket doors and an elegant staircase," is owned by an astronomy professor whose last name reeks of mafia connections but whose demeanor couldn't be further. He also has a dog, although his is not the kind with a bad reputation. She's a giant, goofy sheepdog with messy, doggy-style dreadlocks and claws that leave trails on old wooden floors. Upon learning Joker has a telltale block head and wide jaws, Not-mafia Landlord reacted as if I had asked if he had a problem receiving the rent on time. Our shy, mostly dormant PJ posed no threat to the floors or our landlord's sense of security. Thankful for laid back astronomers, we are.

Private Joker, like Cherry and Johnny in The Champions, overcame a bad situation. The scars he bore when we first met told the only part of his former life I'll ever know. Joker is odd, not the kind of dog anyone could own. Thankfully he found me, who had experience with high-maintenance dogs. I've raised three pit bulls. Two showed Joker the ropes of being my dog for two years before they started dying on us. Of all three dogs, my third is the one whose thoughts most intrigue me. After six years with me, why do you still cower? Why are you uninterested in food? Why do you follow me from room to room and up and down the stairs all day? Maybe you're missing something now that you're an only dog. I'm sad they died too, Jokes. So sad. Even if you never stop tucking your tail when other dogs would be wagging theirs, I'll remind myself not to take it personally. I'll always love you just the way you are. 

Nearly seven months ago, Private Joker, in his typical disinterested way, welcomed another boy into our home: my second son. Throughout the pregnancy, my determination to avoid another c section was challenged by statistics, advice, and anxiety. These are the usual suspects that tend to plague the desires of my heart. I tend to ignore the first two. The third, it's my shadow. A darkness created by light. That's why anxiety is such a damning affliction: We can't wish away the sun. Instead, we must learn to stop looking at the darkness around us. It's a skill I've been working to acquire for many years. It's a skill I needed desperately as I was wheeled to surgery again after another long, fruitless labor. Thankfully I had my personal sunshine, my mom, there to hold my hand and sing hymns until I miraculously fell asleep before the worst part, the reintroduction of my organs to the void in my body cavity left by an 8 pound, 8 ounce human. In a few days' time, I'd return home to learn to manage my pain with the requirements of everyday life. They call it recovery. It's not just for humans.

"What many of these dogs need to thrive isn’t rehabilitation at all, but time to recover." —

With multiple scabs and wounds, Private Joker was in recovery when he first came to live with me. Almost six years later—when loud sounds or the rumble of the clothes dryer or sudden movements send him scrambling—I wonder if he's still burdened by his past. It could be that he's not and that he's just a sensitive guy. I'll never know. What most matters is that with the help of me and his two canine mentors, Kaiser and Phaedra, he gained confidence, and how proud he makes me when his behavior belies that miserable pit bull mythology. Recovery came with time and in varying degrees for Cherry and Johnny too, and for all the dogs unlucky enough to have crossed paths with Michael Vick—the ones lucky enough to come out alive, that is.

In The Champions, filmmaker Darcy Dennet gave the audience both a visceral and visual pleasure. Following five of the dogs from rescue through adoption, the film leaves mostly absent the despicable back story of Vick's fighting ring. Instead of the darkest pits of human behavior, there is light in the resilience of these dogs with the world's widest smiles. Through interviews, voice-over scenes, and vignettes of everyday life, Dennett shows us that despite having no reason in the world to trust humans, these dogs do. Some have not only healed but have gone on to become healers themselves as therapy dogs. It's true that pit bulls are the toughest dogs around, though not in the way the dog fighters of the world would have them be.

Whether canine or human, we don't need rehabilitation as much as we need recovery. Pain puts us in a position to find ourselves again. Pain takes us to places both dark and light. How often and how deeply we go to those places is determined by a combination of brain chemistry, self-determination, and support. Along the way, the luckiest among us will find saviors—people or places or things that help the scars heal, though not necessarily more quickly. The path of recovery is shaped differently for every creature that walks it.

Many of the Vick dogs went on to find happy homes. Some, perhaps the ones whose scars run a little more deeply, will live out their time on earth in a Utah sanctuary run by the nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society. The Champions tells a little of Best Friends' back story. As I watched, a familiar feeling awakened inside me, gaining speed from my toes to my chest until I wanted to jump out of my seat. Go now! Be somebody who does something in this world!

I have an idea of what my "something" is, although I feel like my purpose is still revealing itself. As I type this very moment, Jokey is in a familiar pose, resting his snout on my knee and asking me something with his dark eyes whose pink rims are interrupted by black splotches, the kind that cover the rest of his white body in patches large and small. Part Dalmatian? Part work in progress. All mine.

It's hackneyed but no less true: We can learn so much from dogs. We're all in recovery from something.

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