When I got home from work today I wasn’t thinking about her at all, not one bit, until I saw the gate behind the back door open; and then I thought of her because I remembered how difficult it was to get cheatgrass out of her coat when she got into the back pasture.  But she wasn’t in the back pasture.  She’s over by the tree in a hole underneath the blue pressurized well tank.  At that point, I had to think about her.

When I allowed myself to think about yesterday, what I thought of the most was the way her limp neck fell over my wrist before I put her in the dirt hole that would become her bed.  I moved my hand under her neck for support, out of courtesy and compassion but as I did it, I also knew I didn’t need to support her neck because she couldn’t feel anymore.

When I allowed myself to think about yesterday, I knew that I would go back to the last time I saw her.  We shoveled blankets of dirt on her body, I stayed away from her head; I heard crying from above me.  Analise had climbed the tree and watched the burial from on high.  Maybe I thought Ella wouldn’t be dead if we didn’t cover her face but then my ten-year old son, Andres, threw a pile of dirt on her face and she was gone. 

On Monday night, we talked with our neighbors about how it should be done.  A bullet to the head is quick.  It saves you money and quickly ends the suffering.  For a while, that night at least, I was convinced.  Sure, a bullet, that’s quick.  But how would I know she’d never feel a thing?  How would I know she wouldn’t feel her nerves still firing like arms flailing from a body hoping not to drown in deep waters?  

“Dear,” my wife said at 5:15 the next morning when I got out of bed for work.  “I don’t want to do the bullet.  We’ll put her down at the vet.”

My wife and son dug the hole somewhere during the day; his homeschooling schedule interrupted by a new task: Bible reading, math, piano, dig the hole for Ella.  I don’t know when they did it.  I was at work and sent my wife an email telling her to have Andres dig the hole.  I wonder whether they talked as they did it or in silence like men on a chain gang.  I imagine stoic tears, their shovels cutting earth, the piles of dirt nearby later to become backfill.   What a mother and son think about when digging a hole for a dog they love is beyond me.  But we knew this day was coming.  

Perhaps that is why I felt compelled to clear the brush around the big tree behind the garage this past weekend.  I must have thought it would be idyllic for Ella to be buried there or maybe I was convinced and dictated to move by the memories of books and movies where dogs have been put down.

Poor thing.  Her breathing was labored and too often she’d forget to eat or drink water. Dog cancer, lymphoma.  She got skinny real fast.  She’d do nothing but lay around the house and stopped greeting us at the door when we’d get home from any trip.  Poor thing.  In the end, my wife said, “She’s just death.”  Poor thing.

Ella.  Somehow the kids morphed her name into Gor which was short for girl or sometimes they’d call her The Gorlay as in the girlie.  In the end, I was with her when they put her down.  Poor thing.  They asked me if she liked peanut butter.  Yes, of course. I held a plastic knife with peanut butter and watched the Gor lick it happily with the little strength she had left, an odd and somewhat unnecessary distraction for what was to come.  But I got it.  Enter the vet and her assistant.  They shaved a patch off of her right, front leg.  Two needles rested on the table.  Because she was dehydrated, it was hard to find a vein at first.  They told her it would be okay but I got it.  Finally they found a vein and I watched her go limp.  Poor thing.  And then the next needle to stop the heart. I got up to see her face.  The vet said they go with their eyes open.

I knew this day was coming.  I carried dead Ella, sobbing with a stone face, and walked out of the office.  Carried her to her bed in the back of my wife’s car and made sure she was as comfortable as a dead dog could be.  Lucia cried a bit and I had to remind her that putting her down was the best thing for Ella.  And then the drive home, her first drive dead.   No more rides to McCall with us or to track practice or to the store.  No more rolling up the front carpet when we leave for church or blocking the stairs in case she can’t hold it anymore and goes on the carpet upstairs.  No more what a cute dog, what is she, she’s a cocker spaniel. 

Part of me is embarrassed by this all.  I had dogs growing up but I never watched them die.  Let’s just say my father took care of them when they became a burden.  I think that I should be handling this much better, the death of a dog shouldn’t be this bad.  But I think it’s natural.  Men better than I have had to put down horses and cows, animals that worked for them and gave of themselves; except I doubt a blog post was part of their grieving process, if they have one. Ella was our small, old cocker spaniel.  She was deaf and blind in one eye.  She lasted a long time.  Provided warmth for Andres and the girls many nights, a sweet dog.  Poor thing.  And now that she’s gone and we’re moving on, I know for certain, with a heavy and guilty heart, that the next dog we own, I’ll pet more often.        


Miss California


Due to inclement weather and road conditions, all West Ada Schools in Idaho are closed today; which means, I am not teaching today.  They do not have snow days like this in California.  At least not in the Central Valley where I was born, raised and taught for four years. 

“Poor people in California!  They are missing out on all this fun!” says my daughter Analise over her homemade blueberry oatmeal at breakfast.

We are held captive by the snow’s steady fall and the accumulating inches growing into feet.  Growing up in the Central Valley, I never saw snow unless my family traveled to Yosemite and that was only a few times.  One year it snowed in Merced.  That was too long ago.

I miss California.  When I speak of California, I only have the Central Valley in view because it is to me what the rough South is for other writers; it is my world, for nothing can ever stand against born and raised.  However, when I do feel estranged from my home state, I say to myself, “Miss California?  Are you out of your mind?”  I start to list everything wrong with the valley: the water crisis, high unemployment, crime, poor air quality, and thanks to Forbes, a notoriety for being one of the most miserable places to live.    

In spite of these imperfections, I am loyal and my allegiance remains.  I have Stockholm syndrome.  I am fully aware of how bad the valley is and how its mismanagement and dysfunction is an abusive lash beating and wearing its resident-captives down.  I hoped the valley would get better the way a battered wife deludes herself into thinking the little goodness in her husband may one day overcome the cruelty causing him to smash her with his fists.  I stayed as long as I could.     

But nothing can be done about my affections for the valley because of the circumstance of place.  Buccal smear the inside of my cheek.  There are no DNA traces of my father and mother there unless you count the chicken processing plant they have worked in most of their lives and the marriage I hoped would have lasted; there are traces of school hallways I walked down, quinceañeras I waltzed in, handcuffs I wore, blood I spilled, a teaching career born and traces of a little brown boy leaping off the pier at Lake Yosemite, crashing into the water, intentionally submerging himself because it is enchanting to look upon a bright, blurry sky from below the water.

I doubt I will ever be able to speak from my heart about any other place not only because there I find my origins, family and friends but also because I feel I have left things undone.  I should have done more.  I should have been adventurous and scoured the state for money and gold hidden by Joaquin Murrieta.  I should have trekked the John Muir Trail.  I should have made the Point Reyes Lighthouse more than a day trip.  I would go back and break into the lighthouse lens room and watch the sunset and sunrise.  I would go back and walk more of the Pacific Coast.

I would go back a giant, visiting the San Andreas Fault and running my hand over the sutured earth, feeling it in a way nobody else could.  I would stare down into the fault and defy it.  I would mock it.  It would not make me feel my own insignificance.  I should have been like Huell Howser, traversing the state like a tramp with deep pockets, becoming intimate with all of California’s gold and not just the valley’s.    

For now, all the adventure I could have experienced in California, I could experience in Idaho.  There is so much I have not seen or done even after living here three years.  I will make a list of places we’ll go and things we’ll do.  I will fight against my recluse tendencies and seize adventure.  Only none of that is happening anytime soon.  Not with this snow.



When I was little, one Christmas, I received two Megatrons as gifts.  One from my parents and one from my aunt.  We exchanged one of them at a KMART in Merced that now only stands in my memory.  I got Optimus Prime instead; thus, allowing me to join every other boy in the world who played with a good guy in one hand and a bad guy in the other.  

Another time, I was given an action figure of my favorite WWF wrestler, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat.  He was this bulky wax-figure whose limbs hardly moved which made it near impossible for my imagination to see him perform the various wrestling moves I watched him perform on television.  Then again, I didn’t have another action figure he could grapple with or, as the famed WWF announcer Gorilla Monsoon would have said, “They’re fighting from pillar to post.”  A good guy in one hand, the other empty.  No Randy “Macho Man” Savage, no Jake “The Snake” Roberts, no Bad News Brown.  Nobody.  These action figures were expensive.  I wonder how I reminded my parents that Steamboat was the guy I wanted?  Maybe I went to the store with them one day and simply pointed him out.  I sometimes marvel at the gifts my parents were able to get us for Christmas at all.  We were not super rich or super poor; if we were a gas tank, I gather we were right above empty.  Looking back, I sometimes feel ashamed at the things I asked of my parents knowing their budget was limited.  Instead of an overpriced video game system one year, I was given some off-brand video game system.  I can’t remember the name.  It had a gun but the game was on a videocassette and at the corner of the television set I had to place this red light.  As the game began, you are in the cock pit of a fighter jet.  You are chasing enemy aircraft through canyons, deserts and over the ocean.  As the targets lock on the enemy aircraft, your job is to shoot them down.  If the light on the television turned red, it was a hit.  It had a pretty cheesy score and narration.  But I had something.

All I knew as a kid, or should I say, based off of what television advertising and friends at school were telling me, this system was not what every kid wanted.  Though I never dared verbalize it as a child, I lived with the unrealistic expectation that I needed to have certain material possessions in order to survive.  In order to be fine.  Television advertising and wanting to fit in with the popular kids drilled this lesson into my psyche daily.  I didn’t know I needed the popular toy or popular piece of clothing until the television and the student body told me so.

“Oh,” I would say, “I guess my shoes must only be British Knights and LA Gear.  My pants have to be Silvertabs and my jacket must be a poofy NFL or NHL parka like I see the older kids at school wear.”

I know I always received more than I should have and that my parents did their best.  Whether it was a Christmas in Merced or visiting with cousins in San Francisco when they lived near Mission, near Valencia or when they moved to Daly City, I always had Christmas gifts, food and family to share it with.  As much as I had those things, I still always lived with the lie that it was never enough.  Life was not brand names and I was quietly insistent that it should be.  

Then I grew up.

Many years ago, before we had children, my wife and I told our parents and family we no longer were going to buy anybody gifts and that they should not get us any.  We figured there were too many needy children and families that needed more than we did.  We became principled.  At least for two years.  We raised money and gave to those who really needed, to those who lived in conditions lower than anything my wife or I ever experienced as children.  We did away with the Christmas tree and each and every Christmas decoration out of perhaps, misguided religious zeal and certainly because of the nauseousness brought on by consumerism.

Then we had children.  Very slowly some of those things came back and our principles loosened.  The Christmas tree was not going to damn me to hell and gifts are not going go spoil my children outright.  Nostalgia, I gather, also played a part but also the ability to bless my children.  There are gifts like I had gifts under the tree.  There is family like I had family.  What’s to complain about?  Sometimes I think I should create some sort of inventory card where my children could write down the exact descriptions of the gifts they received; this way, when they’re older and trying to remember the gifts they received, they will not be left, like me, to the whims of memory.

At the kitchen table, we teach our children to be thankful.  It is a difficult mindset to grasp as a child especially if parents are not setting the example.  We cannot grumble and complain and expect our children not to.  At the kitchen table, we talk about being content with what is before us, to not covet and obsess over the things others have that we don’t, leading us to question our worth, leading us to selfish pity parties and depression.  Of course, this is a dilemma that may only plague those of us who live in a world where excess is as obtainable to the degree we are willing to use or misuse our money or to the degree we are willing to use or misuse credit.  How odd and ridiculous, to be sad for more when you have enough.  And when all of that is happening, how can we see what Christmas is really all about?  

In Finding Forrester, William Forrester, played by Sean Connery, tells his young friend and protege Jamal, “The key to a woman’s heart is an unexpected gift at an unexpected time.”  When I remember that line, I think, what is more unexpected than a king born in an obscure manger?  What is more unexpected than Emmanuel, God with us?  What a most unexpected way for God to make Himself known.  Scripture says, “But when the fulness of the time was come [or, when the time was right], God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).  Not only did Jesus come at the right time but he also gave the unexpected gift of himself for us, “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).  This is the key to my heart and the key to our family.  It is the most important thing to dwell upon, not only during a season that bears the name of Jesus, the greatest gift of all, but everyday.

See, when I was little I thought Christmas was first and foremost about Transformers, WWF action figures, GI Joe, scooters, clothes, video games, turkey, nacatamales and family; I thought it was about trees, Christmas programs and snow, decorations and He-Man, Cringer and Skeletor.  But I realize now, it’s always been and will be about the Master of the Universe. 











Black Friday Random

I get away to do some work, hoping a bit of lesson planning will make things easier when I go back to school after the break.  This is always a lie and the friend who tells you this is not your friend.  My good intentions are short lived.  I have five short stories hoping to finish and the need – wrong word, crazed obsession to finish them weighs on my mind. There is a deadline only I don’t know what it is nor do I know who has set it.  Then I remember about this blog I have not touched in a while.  Here we are.      

My daughter finished a whole series of books a while ago and I’ve asked her to write the author a letter, explaining how much she enjoyed the books.  I say, “Sister, there are no great writers, only great rewriters.”  She gets it.  I write her an outline to preempt, “How do I start?”  This isn’t my first rodeo.

“Why do I have to write this?”

“Sister, writers like to know that others have liked their writing,” I say, as if having authority.

“How do you know?” she asks, destroying my authority.

I smile, not hurt.

“Just a hunch,” I say.

And I fully intend on writing without interruption only I have erred tremendously by believing I can accomplish much work at the local coffee shop.  Technically this is writing but not the “I-have-to-finish-this-story” writing.  Then I remember, or keep remembering like an interrupted, morse code on a loop, that today is Black Friday.  And if I forget, the people here won’t let me.     

The only person I connect (defined as holding my attention temporarily) with in the coffee shop is a tall white man in jeans and a blue flannel with a shaved head I gather is more a necessity than choice.  He’s got a book, I love books.  

“My brother!”

I see only the words “fallen brother” on the book cover.  So I do what anyone does these days to learn about another person without being social, I use the Internet.  I google fallen brother, analyze my choices, analyze the book cover now shoved into his armpit, clamped snug to pay for his Caffe Americano.  Actually, I don’t know what he ordered.  A find a match on Amazon.

The book is Fallen Brother in Blue: The Tragic Death of Police Officer Mark Stall.  I know nothing about the book other than what the brief summary gives me.  The man is now at a table, engaged in an act I rarely find myself in, sitting with a friend at a table and talking.  My friends are pens , notebooks and time.  I didn’t know coffee was this important, a necessary pitstop from Black Friday shopping.  But it’s not that, I know.  Coffee is a quiet mediator, forgotten and doomed to lukewarmness between folks as they talk about deals, as they talk about yesterday, as they talk about books left to lie on a table.  A woman walks by and her shirt is a depiction of Santa’s suit.  A man walks by and I swear he is one of my old drill instructors but I say nothing.  A guy walks in looking like Conor McGregor as if he’s just raided Wyatt Earp’s wardrobe.  Three teachers sit next to me at a long table.  They open up their planners and right away I gather they are more organized than I am, the first of many negative assumptions.  One is African-American.  I remember what a friend told me once, “I’m tired of hyphens.  Just call me American.”  I have the irrational desire of whipping out my planner from my bag just to let them know that I’m a teacher too and that I’m good and that and that and that rather than the guy at the end of the table with the beenie on, shaking his head in disbelief at overpriced coffee mugs.

I see bags of coffee labeled with loaded words like







failing to lure buyers, failing to tap into their “Let’s-make-the-world-better-by-buying coffee-instinct”; failing to lure buyers away from the Black Friday alerts on their phones. For a split second, I see the faces of my students but then I remember lyrics from a System of a Down song I haven’t heard in years:

“Advertising causes need

therapy, therapy

Advertising’s got you on the run

Every minute, every second,

buy, buy, buy, buy, buy.” 

I should have worked at home, amidst the chaos of my lovely family and a hot cup of cowboy coffee in my hand.  Next time.