I know I’m supposed to be a stand-up comedian and that these are supposed to be funny. Forgive me. And forgive me for self-indulgently meandering towards my point, but this is my blog and blogs are self-indulgent by their very nature.
Ten years ago, painfully depressed and anxious, I read what would be the first in a long line of self-help books focused on making me a more aware and happy individual. Anyone who has met me in the last few decades may suggest that I demand my money back. Others may have actually noticed a seismic shift in my thinking, an honest effort to see the positive in things no matter how horrible.
Here’s an extreme example (and dangerous if taken seriously and out of context): while recently reading a Beatles biography, I learned that both sets of John Lennon’s parents and Paul McCartney’s parents met and fell in love while huddled in bomb shelters during the Blitzkrieg. If you allow your logic to really stretch, you would realize that without the Nazi campaign, there may never have been a Lennon or a McCartney a generation later; that without Lennon and McCartney, there would be no Beatles; and that without the Beatles, there would have been no fundamental culture shift in the 60s. Now, I’m as far away from thanking Hitler as anyone in his right mind, but it’s astounding to think that he was, at least cosmically, partially responsible for long hair, hippie-chic, and free love. The thought of a monster so consumed with hate burning in Hell and hopefully (and painfully) realizing that he may have helped bring the world “All You Need Is Love” is tantalizingly, poetically sweet. So there you go, Neo-Nazi scum: ol’ Adolph wants you to “give peace a chance.”
Back to Self-Help: Although most of the books on this subject amount to nothing substantial (think The Idiot’s Guide to Unlocking the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Chicken Soup Diamond Polishing Within and the Money Will Follow. For Dummies), this first book set me on a decent, life-changing path. At nineteen, more so than now even, I was a quietly polite guy who was scared of appearing incapable and/or needy. I never asked for anything: favors, money, help, etc. And while polite and easy-going on the outside, I was furious on the inside, wondering when I would finally catch a break. It never occurred to me to ask my parents for tuition help or even help applying to schools. The unspoken message I got in our home was that I was on my own. Looking back, I was probably mistaken. My parents treated me as amazingly independent, because I usually was. As a latchkey kid (since the age of seven or so) and as a responsible older sibling, I was given a lot of opportunity to be self-reliant. If I couldn’t meet the challenge, however, I thought there was something wrong with me. I really, really wish I could go back and let that kid know it was okay to breathe deep and relax, to enjoy being a kid. I could have gone on that class trip to D.C. I could have asked my teachers for a little extra help to get better grades. I could have dated more. I “could have” a lot of things.
Anyway, the main point of this book (NOT The Secret) was that it was okay to allow yourself to ask for anything from anyone (your parents, teachers, the universe, whomever). You never know what someone is willing to give you if you just ask. The problem was (still is?) that I didn’t know whom to ask, how to ask, or what to ask for. One of the exercises I remember was to create a “wish list”, verbalizing my wants onto paper. The list had to be 101 items long, and there were no criteria for any of these items. I still have the list and the wishes range from the simple (No. 4 – “a new, full or queen-sized bed”), to the seemingly outlandish (No. 32 – “to own a personalized pool table”) to the just plain silly (No. 87 – “to see my cartoon characters turned into Happy Meal toys”). And coming up with 101 different wants is a lot harder than you would imagine. After you cover the biggies like a nice house and a new car, and nice houses and cars for your parents, you really start scraping the bottom of the wish barrel, coming up with items like world peace and inner tranquility (No.’s 100 and 101, respectively).
This brings me to Wish No. 12: “An English Bulldog.”
Growing up mostly in apartments, dogs where generally not an option. Our family had a few dogs over the years, but I’ll go on record as saying that I didn’t like them very much as I am positive the feeling was mutual. We had a Cocker Spaniel named “Princess” who was bred to be high-strung, her time with us was short and she was quickly sent to another home. Between the ages of six and eleven, my brother and I had bugged our parents for another dog, never really having the time, money or room for one. After my parents’ divorce when I was twelve (and moving from house to grandparents’ house to duplex to apartment), I pretty much wrote off the possibility of ever having a dog. We stopped asking; I stopped wanting. When I was 14 or 15, my mother surprised us with another Cocker Spaniel (this one named “Britney” of all things), and Mom was understandably upset when we weren’t more appreciative. It was hard to explain to her that we no longer wanted a dog, and even if we did, that we didn’t want a Cocker Spaniel, especially one named “Britney.” And while we were grateful for the gesture, I hadn’t asked for this dog and was now inextricably responsible for her mess. Let me put it this way: I was the people of Iraq, my mom was Bush and the dog was “democracy.” Democracy Dog hated me and shat the carpet every morning in front of my room. Even though Bush’s heart was in the right place, eventually it was decided that democracy should find a new home.
Thanks to celebrities like George Clooney and Adam Sandler, bulldogs have become very popular again. But in 1998, they were still somewhat on the fringe. I had wanted a bulldog, if not my whole life, for a very long time. I cannot explain my attraction to the breed, other than perhaps that I’ve always liked the Looney Tunes “Spike” character with the turtleneck sweater, toothpick and derby. At 19, I was attending UT Dallas (a second choice, as I was accepted to UT with most of my friends but never asked my parents for help finding or paying for housing in Austin); working full time at various jobs, and shared a one-bedroom apartment with my friend Rick. There was, again, no time, money or room for a dog. But I put “English Bulldog” on the wish list anyway with distant hope.
I became borderline obsessed. While working at Einstein Brothers Bagels, I would scan the classifieds in every morning’s paper for two things: a better, art-related job and a bulldog. For those who don’t know, this breed comes with a host of health problems, making them extremely expensive. I was disheartened every time I saw an ad that said, “Bulldog Puppies! Only $1500!” I guess I was expecting to see an ad one day read, “Free English Bulldog pups to undergrads that reek of asiago cheese bagels,” but I never did, probably because that ad would be too wordy. But bulldogs were a pipedream and were going to remain so for a very long time I thought.
Well, I found a better, art-related job in those classifieds. In a year’s time, I also found a townhouse and bought that queen-sized bed (No. 4). I was starting to scratch wishes off my list, and there was nothing nearly as satisfying as saying, “This is no longer just a wish.” The best part was I was not sacrificing any pride or any image of self-reliance. I was simply going after wants/needs that I was finally able to verbalize. When it was time to finally find a dog, we searched a lot of kennels and shelters, never finding exactly what I was looking for. Anyway, I didn’t just want a dog for the sake of having a dog; I wanted a bulldog…an expensive, probably-never-gonna-happen bulldog.
Relentlessly researching online, I eventually stumbled on a website for Dallas Bulldog Rescue, an organization that finds homes for abused or abandoned bulldogs. Often used as fighting dogs (which makes no sense if you’ve ever met a bulldog), this organization swoops in and grabs them before potential Michael Vick’s can “adopt” them from shelters. I quickly sent an application. Being somewhat popular and expensive, I couldn’t imagine bulldogs just wandering around needing a home. I sent the application, just hoping to get on a waiting list.
After a few weeks, I called to make sure that they actually received my application and fee (a mere fraction of what a licensed puppy-mill puppy would cost). They said that they had, and apologized for not calling sooner as they had two dogs that I should consider. Shocked, I couldn’t believe that they already approved my application, that I was on their list and that I could have a bulldog as early as that very weekend. I couldn’t believe a bulldog pipedream was about to become a reality. Shocked.
We went to the first “foster home”, and there was never a need to visit the second. The DBR rep said that it was obviously “love at first sight,” as she had never seen this dog perk up and respond to a human like that. He was partially injured and had hot spots on his body (areas where skin problems led to patches of missing fur that would eventually grow back). His jaw jutted out in ways that the AKC would never approve of and his lower canine tooth stuck up and out across his upper lip – all of this was mostly unnoticeable at the time, however, as his mouth was gaping open, grinning ear to ear. He was beautiful.
And apparently, they found him abandoned, just wandering around needing a home.
So in May of 2000, a stone’s throw from my 22nd birthday, we took four-year-old Winston home.
He was wonderful in the ways that dogs usually are: attentive and playful, loving and gentle. He was all personality. Well, not “all.” He was, like, 75% personality, 15% head/mouth and 10% ass.
In the last eight years, he moved with us from townhouse to rental house to our first real home. He has baskets of chew toys and pillows all over the house and special dog blankets that we use to keep the couch relatively clean. We have gates to keep him confined to the living room and kitchen when we’re gone and we close the pantry to keep him out of the garbage. We close the bedroom door so he doesn’t get in there and lick his paws on the bed while we’re not home. We have locks on the cabinets and typically keep all food off of the counters. All of this comes from years of experience, of trial and error, as he quickly taught us what happens if you leave a loaf of bread out in the open.
There are photos of him on shelves and on the walls, cartoons I’ve drawn, and little bulldog statues everywhere in our home. My three-year-old son only knows our home with Winston in it. There’s a bone-shaped sign by the door where we hang his leash that reads, “A spoiled bulldog lives here.” I am a proud bulldog owner.
One picture is of him and Santa. We took him to get his picture taken with “Santa Russ” with Operation Kindness, the no-kill animal shelter, for our first Christmas together. I remember that day vividly because we were asked to sit in another room with the other “trouble” dogs. Being as big and menacing-looking as he was, he caused a stir with the other, useless, yapping lap dogs. Intimidated, they barked their heads off while my guy just sat there, being gentle and unaware. He wasn’t causing any problems, but because of the noise, we were asked to leave the carpeted waiting room and wait for Santa in the cement-floored storage room. I guess that moment more than any other made me identify with him on a very deep level. There’s Ferdinand the Bull, Winston the Bulldog and me.
He commanded attention whenever we were out. Strangers would come up to pet him while we took walks and were at the Pet Smart and the vet. He was everybody’s friend and he never met a leg he didn’t love.
And on top of all of that, he is special to me for another important reason: I feel like I willed him into my existence. He was a reminder to me that I didn’t have to settle for less than what I wanted. I set a very specific goal, figured out how to achieve it and then made it a reality. My life is wildly different today than it was eight years ago, and he was at the forefront of that personal change. Without “asking for” Winston, I don’t know if I would have ever found the courage to try stand-up comedy, or felt worthy enough to ask for a raise or capable enough to buy a house or any number of things. He was the living, breathing embodiment of what I was capable of achieving. He was my wish.
For the first time in a long time, I came home to an empty house yesterday. There was no one to greet us, no one to bowl us over while we tried to put groceries away, no need to move a gate to the side or close a pantry door or double check the alarm before going to bed. There was no one keeping me up last night, barking or making nauseating sounds licking his paws. There was no one to trip over this morning as I got out of bed. There are chew toys in every corner of the house. There are pillows, slobbered on and ripped. There are photos of him on shelves, cartoons I’ve drawn, and little bulldog statues everywhere. There’s a coupon for a free bag of dog food sitting by the front door. Even with a loving wife, an amazingly sensitive and funny toddler, and a house full of stuff, my world is a world emptier today.
He made me proud every day I knew him up to and including Sunday, and he will continue to make me proud every time I think of him. He was a goofball, an unabashedly playful and hopelessly loving goofball. And he was noble. We transfer a lot of human qualities to our pets, often wrongly so. I get that. But I wish you could have met him. You would have known that he lived and died with quiet dignity, living through agonizing pain but still wagging his stub of a tail when I held him. I should have walked him more. I should have wrestled with him more. I “should have” a lot of things. I think those guilty thoughts and realize that nothing I could have done, to any degree, could possibly pay him back for what he gave me.
He taught me that it was okay to ask something of the universe, and that sometimes (when you’re lucky) the universe lets you spend some time with a big, “Yes!”