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Christmas blues

December 25, 2009

Bill Cosby once said, “Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be you can survive it.”

And to paraphrase everybody’s favorite bromide, the worst Christmas I ever spent was still better than any other day.

Twenty some years ago I found myself looking ahead, with foreboding, at an unusual Christmas. Unusual for me anyway. For the first time in my life I was going to be alone on Christmas Eve and I was dreading it. Earlier in the year my wife, the mother of my two daughters, had moved out of the house. I still had the company of my two daughters most of the time but according to our visitation arrangement they would be going to their mother’s apartment from the morning of December 23 until the wee hours of Christmas morning.

To make matters worse, every single member of my extended family was heading north to spend Christmas at Silver Lake so I didn’t even have the option of carrying my forlorn butt over to someone else’s house and leeching their Christmas spirit. Nobody was going to be in town.

I’ve always liked Christmas Eve. In many ways it’s better than Christmas Day. If you're a child you have the anticipation of presents in the morning but that isn't happening now so it doesn't overwhelm the Christmas spirit. Growing up, my family always attended church on Christmas Eve and then came home to egg nog and cookies—then we’d sit around enjoying each other’s company and feeling good.

The Holy Spirit owns Christmas Eve and I defy anyone to dispute it.

The idea of being alone on Christmas Eve didn’t appeal to me at all. Some men in this circumstance might find themselves a girlfriend—I bought a dog. I’ve always liked dogs but early in my marriage I’d been given a choice, “Me or a dog,” and chosen poorly, so I had no dog.

I like fast dogs—greyhound breeds—so I did some research and bought a Saluki. This was in November. I was thinking ahead.

I wanted the girls to feel involved so on the way to pick him up from the breeder I said they could name him. The breeder lived outside of Grand Rapids in a rural area and had dozens of Salukis running around in a huge fenced-in area behind her house. (And when I say running, I mean RUNNING. That’s what Salukis do.) With their coloring and long legs most Salukis look like deer, but my daughters decided, for some reason, while watching our new dog’s deer-like strides and deer-like coloring as he raced deer-like back and forth, to name him Jack Rabbit.

(A year later, to keep Jack company, I bought a whippet with brindle coloring identical to a Bengal tiger and they named him Peter Rabbit, so at least they were consistent.)

By the time Christmas rolled around Jack and I had bonded in a way that only lonely people can bond with an animal, and in a way that I will probably never bond with another dog. I trained him to walk without a leash and he became a neighborhood celebrity. Jack would run forty miles an hour down the sidewalk until he reached a street and then skid to a stop and wait. I’d nonchalantly walk past him, cross the street, walk partway down the next block, and then casually say over my shoulder, “Okay, Jack,” and he would tear across the street and down the block past me like the hounds of hell were chasing him. And then stop at the next street and wait. He wouldn’t step one foot into a street until I gave permission.

It was canine theatre. People with guests would see us coming and bring their visitors outside to see the show. “Watch this dog! You won’t believe it!”

The goal of our walk was always Richmond Park where he could truly open up his stride and run like only a Saluki can. Jack loved the park. On my last “Okay, Jack,” at the street by the park, he would practically jump across the street in his excitement. Woe to any living creature moving in the park when Jack hit the area, because he would spot it and pass it. The hunting instincts originally possessed by his sighthound ancestors were completely missing from Jack. All he had left was an irresistible urge to race. Squirrels, small children, other dogs, whatever. I saw many a squirrel age before my eyes as Jack caught up to them and passed them, easing up and looking over his shoulder as if to say, “That’s all you got, slowpoke?”

Imagine a squirrel’s thoughts at that moment. The terrifying, 80-pound, carnivorous beast he was running away from is now suddenly ahead of him and the poor squirrel is running toward his pursuer. It was hilarious watching squirrels stop, rise up on their hind legs, and try to think through a new concept. “Okay, the dog is now ahead of me and racing away. I’m still alive. So what the hell was this all about?”

As for Jack, once he had passed something he just wasn’t interested anymore.

He was incredibly hearty. People unused to greyhound breeds would accuse me of starving him because they could see his ribs but, compared to show-dog Salukis, Jack was huge. Because he was outside so much, in all kinds of weather, and got so much exercise, he grew to be about 25% taller and 40% heavier than most Salukis and his paws were huge. He had a twenty-yard stride at full speed and his gait was so smooth it looked like a glass of water set on his back wouldn’t spill a drop.

I continued to feed him the same premium dry dog food he was getting from the breeder and nothing else. No table scraps, no treats, just a bowl of Eukanuba that was always full—he was a self feeder. He got as much to eat as he wanted, as long as it was his dog food. This is important to the story, so let me repeat: from the time he was weaned until that first Christmas Eve he and I spent together, Jack’s innards had never digested anything except dry Eukanuba. Ever.

Christmas Eve about noon, I realized we were out of dog food. Because the weather was bad, I didn’t want to drive to the pet store so Jack and I walked over to a nearby 7-11 and I bought the only kind of dog food they sold: Bench & Field.

If you are knowledgeable about dogs, you know where this story is going.

Bench & Field, I learned later, has a reputation for taking some “getting used to.” It’s good dog food, it just requires a few days for a dog’s digestive system to ramp up to speed. Jack’s digestive system didn’t even know what “ramp up to speed” meant. He was a one-dogfood dog.

He spent the afternoon wolfing down Bench & Field like a glutton, thrilled to be experiencing a new taste.

About dinner time, as daylight disappeared and the beginnings of depression and loneliness started making inroads on my mood, and I started wallowing in self-pity for having no human company on Christmas Eve, the first eruption occurred, right in the middle of the annual television-showing of It’s A Wonderful Life.

Jack, a dog who had probably never farted in his life, let out an audible retort.

He was sprawled out on the living room floor at the time, with his head toward the front door and his tail toward me. I was reclining on the couch, and he looked up to see if I’d heard it and whether it worried me as much as it worried him. I had and it did, because almost immediately behind the sound came the most obnoxious smell ever confronted by a human nose. It was like a skunk had died and rotted in the summer sun until it was eaten by an old badger who subsequently fell into a cesspool and drowned and when the badger’s body floated to the surface ten days later a vulture swooped down and devoured it and then flew back to his nest to regurgitate a meal for the baby vultures who happened to be in my living room watching It’s A Wonderful Life with me. That’s what it was like. Maybe worse.

If only that had been the end of it...

As Jack’s digestive issues got worse and worse, an image was branded into my brain cells where it remains visible to this day: Jack sprawled across the living room floor on his left side, exploding periodically, looking up in alarm every single time to gauge my reaction to the horrible smells that seemed fully capable of singeing nose hairs, all punctuated by the lovely sight of his balls protruding from between his legs.

It was like I had been sent to Christmas Eve Hell.

I finally couldn’t stand it anymore. He was a little worried about his own eruptions so I remember saying something reassuring like, “Jack, you stinky nasty ugly skunk! You’re gonna make the paint blister if I don’t get you out of here! WHY WHY WHY did I buy a dog?”

Dogs are the greatest listeners in the world. Somehow from all my insults Jack heard, “Let’s go for a walk!” and jumped up all excited. Try that with a woman sometime. If you live past the “stinky nasty ugly” part it’s only because you ducked and I guaran-damn-tee she’s not gonna jump up all excited about a walk.

But I digress.

It was horrible walking that night. It had snowed and then rained on top of the snow, and then the temperature dropped and froze the rain into a thin crust on top of the snow. Not enough to support you all the time, just enough to support you some of the time. So every step was an adventure as you waited to see whether you would slip on or crash through the crust. Just laboring a few hundred yards was exhausting and by the time we hit Richmond Park I was really feeling sorry for myself.

Jack wasn’t enjoying the conditions either. He couldn’t get good footing even with four of them. Instead of roaming ahead and behind and off to either side, like dogs tend to do, he was staying right by my side. Which meant that I walked along in a traveling cloud of stink. In fact, if anything the walk seemed to make his eruptions worse, and more pungent.

“Jack, get away from me!” I kept shouting. “For God’s sake, why are you staying so close?”

But the more I yelled and the more he farted and the more he slipped and slid, the more insecure he got. Consequently, the closer to me he stayed. It was a nightmare.

“Jack, please, let me have some oxygen!”

I’m pretty sure I saw bark peeling off trees as we passed. It was nasty.

About fifty yards into the park I slipped and fell to the ground, and of course Jack was right there immediately to make sure I was okay. He put one mighty paw on my chest, looked me straight in the eyes as if to say, “No matter what, I’m here for you,” and then ripped off the mightiest explosion of the whole evening.

Just like that, as fast as you can say “Merry Christmas,” I was laughing like I hadn’t laughed in months. Suddenly the absurdity of the evening struck me and, by golly!, it was simply funny, and somehow I knew that whatever my future held—divorce, lonely Christmas Eves, stinky dogs—I'd survive and be happy.

They say that God gives us what we need, not what we want. Who knew that the cure for my gloom that day was a stinky dog?

By the time we got home, Jack seemed happier, too. As he got used to the eruptions I think they stopped worrying him and he began to feel pride in his new Skunk Dog superpowers—but I never fed him Bench & Field again, trust me on that.

From Reno, Nevada, USA

December 29, 2009 - That was SOOO....FUNNY I couldn't stop daughter thought I was crazy.. - Reno

December 27, 2009 - I still think about Jack. He was a great dog, and you are a great dad. Thanks for the memories! - Samantha, Michigan

December 26, 2009 - It took me almost ten minutes to read the damn thing! I laughed my ass off while tears streamed down my face. You are freakin' hilarious! This will be my story every time I feel alone at Christmas and unloved cuz' I'm not with my family. Thank you Man, thank you! - Star, Tennessee

December 25, 2009 - After reading the comments, "thee doth protest too much, methinks"! If it's so painful to read, why do they bother and then take the time respond?!?! I thoroughly enjoyed this story (as I do most of your writings) and, being a dog owner, can certainly identify. Have a Merry CHRISTmas, JP! - Icy in Michigan
J.P. replies: "Most?"

December 24, 2009 - Don't ask me [why] I kept reading, dreading something horrible happening to Jack, but the last line made me smile. I know I don't agree with a lot of your viewpoints, but you're all right in my book. - Michael

December 24, 2009 - No wonder your wife left you, you freaking baboon... perfect example of male humor; funny only to a four year old. - Jeff, Chicago

December 24, 2009 - Even though I've heard that story at least a hundred times, it always makes me laugh out loud. Thanks. - Never lonely again, Nevada

December 24, 2009 - Quit e-mailing me. Republicans are idiots, war mongers etc. You are part of the problem, not part of the solution. - Lewis, California
J.P. replies: Jack was never a war monger. Pete was the war monger. Whippets are part terrier. Don't worry about more emails—all you had to do was ask. And hey, dude, Merry Christmas and congratulations on the swell condition of your state.

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