Aktis R.I.P.


On this thanksgiving day I want to share the story of the death of a great and beloved dog.

Some readers will know Aktis from earlier posts or from my book. He was an 85-pound German shepherd; we brought home on the day he was weaned from his mother, 11.5 years ago. He died this Halloween, under a cold starry sky framed by 100-foot conifers looming overhead.

For the first time in more than two decades we have no dog, no sterling Kestra or exuberant Aktis to share and sweeten our days. These days I rarely walk in the woods or garden without crying at my loss. All the places are haunted by his memory.


with Kestra and Aktis

Despite the grief, or rather because of it, I am posting this on Thanksgiving. I want to remember Aktis in a spirit of love and gratitude and celebration. I want to remember his life and our friendship. That’s my aspiration, anyway.

In the meantime there’s grief, which takes its own bittersweet time. I am not yet philosophical enough to smile at his memory. But that time too will come.

Yesterday sitting in the garden near where we buried him, I found myself smiling at the memory of his absurd ploy of gripping a small stick in his large mouth, very precisely, so that one end would barely protrude; then he would trot over to me with that trademark look of happy concentration he got whenever he had a bright idea. Would I care to try my luck at getting it? It was a game of risk, a game with teeth in fact, as a couple of friends learned to their chagrin.

No sooner had I remembered all this smilingly than I was overwhelmed again by grief, by the feelings of loss and terrible solitude that have been my companion in his stead.

It happened suddenly. Thursday he participated in an impromptu game of football with a bunch of kids, raising considerably (those teeth again) the stakes on fumbles. Friday afternoon in the course of a few hours he became ill. By Friday night he was miserable, crying and whining from pain, unable to sleep. Neither could we, and soon were camped out beside his bed, comforting him as we could. Saturday morning he was so weak we had to carry him on a rug from the house to the car to make the hour’s drive to the veterinary hospital. We left him there and returned home to await news. That afternoon I talked on the phone with the doctor as she ran through diagnostics and sorted out what was going on. Saturday evening we brought him home and said goodbye.

What they found was a massive infection. On Friday Aktis had basically collapsed as his body went septic. Early on during the diagnostic work there was a ray of hope, since a bacterial infection can usually be resolved. He’d had one three years ago that nearly killed him. (I wrote about it in the inaugural post of this blog.) But he had bounced back. Way back.


We weren’t so lucky this time. An ultrasound revealed an abscess on a difficult-to-reach lobe of his liver. This meant that even a course of intravenous antibiotics was unlikely to do more than knock down the infection for a time. At most Aktis would survive a few weeks, and he would suffer. The best alternative was surgery that went after the source of the infection; the doctor estimated Aktis had a 50 or 60% chance of surviving surgery.

But even if he survived the ordeal of surgery that removed the offending abscess and whatever else they found, the recovery would be tough, and it was hard to say what his long-term prognosis would be, except that it was unlikely to be good. After all, they didn’t know the cause of the abscess, or what else they’d find during the surgery.

And then there is this, his death foretold. Aktis was aging, increasingly stiff with arthritis, and gimpy from myelopathy and a bulged disk in the lumbar region—a battle scar from his heedless youth. Even before this crisis, I was already sad to see him slowing down, harder now to keep up with me on the longer walks, lying down whenever he could, letting me know in a dozen small ways that while his spirit was still game, his flesh was giving way. Aktis was reminding me of what I experienced with Kestra. As I wrote in my book

Aktis was out in front with Kestra slowly bringing up the rear. Occasionally I stopped and waited for her to catch up. Once I turned around to look for her and she wasn’t there. As I walked back to find her, it occurred to me that this is how friendship with dogs goes. First they’re bounding ahead pulling at the leash, then for a long sweet while they’re beside you, then they slowly start falling behind, farther and farther, until one day you look back and they’re gone.

When Kestra died I felt this same profound sense of loss, but I had Aktis, and from the wonderful necessity dogs impose on our days he and I continued those familiar and comforting practices of work and play and loving care that have defined my friendship with my dogs.


Who knows? The heroic path of surgery might have succeeded, and instead of writing this sad chronicle on the eve of Thanksgiving he and I would be out together in the snowy woods, I catching some of that infectious euphoria that was Aktis in the snow. Maybe if the planets and stars had happened to be aligned, then maybe they’d have found no cancerous tumors, and maybe the surgery itself wouldn’t have killed him in his fragile condition, and maybe he’d have bounced back by  now. And we’d be friends still, maybe for a month or two, or several months, perhaps a year.

Unfortunately, this was the unlikely story. So, after consulting with the doctors (including my wonderful and brilliant sister), my wife and I decided not to put him or us through a tough surgery for so uncertain an outcome.

The choice to end his life felt obvious. We both knew it was time to say goodbye and that in his own way Aktis was telling us as much. We let him go at an unexpected but beautifully perfect time. Aktis died before he became a patient, while he was still vital, still menacing (evident during that football game), still his magnificent playful lovingly spirited self. He suffered briefly and died quickly, without enduring a long illness full of interventions. And as it happened he died on the night when the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, on a day dedicated to remembering the dead. (You can read about his better days in my book or in this 10th birthday appreciation, or here. I wrote some reflections about grieving dogs and other loved ones here.)

Heartsick we drove back to the hospital that evening to bring him home after a day of poking and prodding, of x-rays and ultrasounds, intravenous fluids and antibiotics and painkillers. We waited in a room until they brought him in, wobbling on his own legs, with just a little support from the assistant. He looked better than in the morning, but still very weak and his face was drawn in pain. He walked toward me and had almost reached me when suddenly he turned around and headed for the door. I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut, until I realized he was doing as he always desperately wanted to do when at the vet’s: Get the hell out.

In a fierce twist, as we walked back to the car with Aktis on his way to dying we passed a man walking with his German shepherd pup heeling beside him. Life goes on.

I lay in the back with Aktis, petting him and talking to him as my wife drove us home. He felt distant, whining periodically, withdrawn I suppose into his suffering. Once home, we left him in the back of the vehicle with the gate open. He lay there, too weak even to try sitting up. [Pause to cry.] I called our neighbor-friend, a vet who makes house calls, to let her know we were home. For the first time, I experienced what it’s like to choose for a friend when exactly his life would end. When our lives together end.


We sat with him in the clearing of our driveway, talking quietly to him and feeding him tuna, a favorite treat. He lifted his head off the rug to take each handful, his warm rough tongue cleaning my hand, his eyes and face lit with eager anticipation. God, I thought, after two days of  agony how bittersweet to see again his dear bright-eyed self gazing at me, awakened not by something as fragile as our friendship, but by that sturdier more elemental life force of appetite.

Our friend arrived, and we paid our last respects as she prepared two injections, the first a preparatory cocktail that included ketamine, the second the lethal dose. I held him close, determined to be a comforting presence as he died.  A minute later, she had to give him a supplemental injection of the lethal dose. Vitality always was one of his great qualities.

She checked his heart again, and nothing. Aktis was dead. Laid out on a rug and blankets, he was motionless for the first time. And forever more. I couldn’t believe it. We stood there, shocked by the bleak cruel fact. In an instant our beloved friend, our glad and faithful companion, was gone. Rest in peace, Aktis.

The love of God, unutterable and perfect,
flows into a pure soul the way that light
rushes into a transparent object.

The more love that it finds, the more it gives
itself; so that, as we grow clear and open,
the more complete the joy of loving is.

And the more souls who resonate together,
the greater the intensity of their love,
for, mirror-like, each soul reflects the others.


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In Defense of Making Mistakes

In my first year on the faculty at St. John’s College, a senior colleague sat down beside me at lunch and asked what classes I was teaching. After I told him, he grinned and gave me some hopeless advice: “It’s best to avoid teaching a class for the first time.”

Right. Who wouldn’t prefer to skip over that stage of learning when awkwardness and mistakes are inevitable and go straight to mastery? But we can no more skip this stage and still be on the path to mastery than I could solve the riddle of becoming an experienced teacher without first being an inexperienced one. Since resistance is futile, let’s put the best face we can on awkwardness, fuck-ups, and failures.

They are easier to embrace when you see the crucial part they play in all learning.  In his excellent book, The Potent Self: A Study of Spontaneity and Compulsion, Moshe Feldenkrais explains that

making mistakes is essential to satisfactory learning. During the apprenticeship, mistakes are correct action; they are agreed on and are part of the business. One cannot become a master of any field of human endeaver without the most important item of learning how to do, which is the personal experience of what not to do.

I’m grateful for this reminder, as I am now in the midst of big changes in my life, both professionally and personally. I am beginning again, an apprentice again.  And I notice that I am making mistakes. Lots of them. Daily.  And not the interestingly nuanced mistakes of a seasoned pro, but the boringly obvious mistakes of a rookie.

Often my first instinctive response to a mistake is a feeling of shame, accompanied by a familiar gremlin who exists, apparently, to gather evidence of my general unworthiness. I used to take him more seriously, but now I send the old mischief-maker packing as soon as I notice him. I remind myself that feelings of regret and even guilt for having acted unskillfully are “part of the business,” for such feelings are related to the action itself and spur improvement. However, shame is the feeling of being unworthy at our core, and as such it is clearly an obstacle to learning, as is whatever contributes to depression or anxiety.

Fortunately, I also have a better nature, one that knows in his bones the truth of Feldenkrais’s point that mistakes made in the course of practicing an art are “correct action.” This part of me desires to learn from my experience, to develop my skills, and, yes, to avoid making the same painful mistakes in the future.

Another reason many of us prefer to skip this stage is that in the early stages of learning how to do anything well there is awkwardness, wasted effort, and drudgery—as anyone learning to play an instrument knows. Feldenkrais offers a cautionary tale about how

very capable men and women often ruin their lives just by skipping or passing too rapidly through some part of the normal apprenticeship. I know some extremely gifted engineers who cannot reach the position they deserve, just because they have been foolish enough to think that it is enough to understand mechanics and mathematics and have therefore totally neglected the drudgery of working out examples….The sooner they sit down to close the gap in their apprenticeship, the better is their chance of getting what is rightfully within their reach.

While not beset by shame gremlins, these talented engineers nevertheless resist rolling up their sleeves and engaging with the often tedious low-concept labor that’s involved in learning how to apply one’s knowledge. No question about it: bringing our theories and bright ideas into practice means embracing the drudgery of working out the examples, stumbling over the scales and chord changes, in short, learning from painstaking experience how to handle skillfully the practical matters involved.

For me, anyway, it’s easier to bear the tedium and the drudgery and the fuck-ups when I don’t take them too personally, when I remind myself that they’re part of the territory we all pass through on our way to learning how to do anything well. It’s also encouraging to keep in mind that the best way to handle this difficult, profoundly vulnerable, territory is to move through it with acceptance, curiosity, grit, and self-compassion.

The good news is that it’s correct action to be kind and gentle and encouraging of our beginner selves—our curious, capable, still learning-and-growing selves—who dare to act incompetently in the short term for the sake of acting beautifully in the end.

That’s the story I’m telling myself, anyway. It helps that it’s a true story.

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First Day of Spring

Here in the Pacific Northwest, spring is well underway. Crocuses are up, the trees are leafing out, and this delicious morning I found my first morel of the season. But not so elsewhere.  This poem is for readers and friends elsewhere, especially on the east coast.

The first day of spring is one thing, and the first

spring day is another. The difference between them is

sometimes as great as a month. –Henry Van Dyke 

One of the most viewed posts on my blog is one I wrote two springs ago. You can find it here. Welcome to the spring and new beginnings.

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Joni Mitchell on the Advantages of Solitude

I like to just kind of free-agent it. I always was a loner. I like walking around in cities by myself. I can see things better. I mean, I’ve had some companions that I’m comfortable enough or compatible enough that I enjoy that, but often I just see better . . . I observe better when I’m on my own.

From Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period, by Michelle Mercer.

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From the Annals of “Easier Said than Done”

I recently came across this gem in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s fine book, Wherever You Go, There You Are:

So, if you stop trying to make yourself into more than you are out of fear that you are less than you are, whoever you really are will be a lot lighter and happier, and easier to live with, too.

Lucky you, if you have no idea what he’s talking about!

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A Book, A Resolution, and An Offer


One of my resolutions for 2014 was to make an effort on behalf of my first child, by which I mean my book Willing Dogs & Reluctant Masters: On Friendship and Dogs. A year later, I’m determined to follow through on it. So, welcome to my resolution.

The book is now two years old. Looking at it from some distance and in light of feedback I’ve received, I still think the tyke worth helping along. For awhile I fantasized that others might help care for it after I’d labored to conceive it and bring it into the world. Oprah, for example. Back in grad school I had a job in a bookstore, and I’ll never forget the frenzied days when Oprah’s book-club shows aired and we’d sell boxes and boxes of the enviable author’s book.

I have abandoned any hope that Oprah will call to help the book and solve in an instant the difficulty of making a living. Nevertheless, I still harbor modest hopes that the kid may live long enough to find more readers. (I reflect on some deeper reasons why authors desire readers here.)

Back to my resolution. Here’s the deal. At no cost, I will send an autographed copy of my book to the first 10 people who contact me and agree to review it at Amazon, or at Goodreads, or some other venue that publishes reviews of books. (If you’ve got a connection at the New Yorker or NYT or Washington Post, etc. all the better!) It’s that simple. If you are interested, leave a comment to this post that includes your email address, and we’ll sort out the details. (Your comment won’t be posted.) If you know someone who might be interested, please send this offer along to them.

If you have already read the book, I’d be grateful if you’d consider taking a few minutes to review it or otherwise help get the word out.

Like many introverted types, I find it awkward to promote my work. For one thing, I’m haunted by Aristotle’s observation about artists and other makers (including most parents): that because of the attention and love they’ve lavished on their work, they tend to love it excessively—certainly “more than they would be loved by it if it were to become alive.” Ouch. Now there’s a weird thought experiment for you. Imagine how your book or sculpture or painting or poem would feel about you, if it could feel.

However my book may feel about me, I’m persuaded by the positive reception it has received that its finer qualities are not merely my projections, and that in its better moments it lives up to the aim the book’s publisher, Paul Dry, has for his books, that they “awaken, delight, and educate.”

But you don’t need to take a fond parent’s (or publisher’s) word for it. You can find a gathering of book-related reviews and interviews here. I’m especially encouraged by Diana Schaub’s review, and by Donald McCaig’s unpublished* remarks. Both of them know dogs and know writing. (Indeed, McCaig’s novel Nop’s Hope is a gripping and unsentimental page-turner about humans and dogs, Shakespearean in the reach of its themes.)

*Actually, he asked the editor at Bark if he could review my book in their pages, but despite his reputation he was refused. Apparently they disapproved of an ear-nipping episode I tell about in the introduction. (Needless to say, I did the nipping.) So perhaps in my case to “awaken, delight, and educate” should be amended to include “set hair on fire” and “outrage” some souls. What a lively, provocative child it must be if it’s worth censoring!

Still, I’d rather they’d published his review.

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Buttons, Butcher Knives, Hearts, and Bombs

Finger on the button

Finger on the button

Buttons make things easier, sometimes too easy, as anyone who has drafted an angry email and then accidentally clicked “send” knows all too well. (My solution is to leave the “To:” field blank until I’m ready to send it. In the meantime I get the pleasure of venting— without the consequences!)

The best example of how buttons make terrible things way too easy to accomplish is of course the buttons that release nuclear weapons. Which brings us to butcher knives, hearts, and bombs. I heard about this on a recent episode of the excellent Radiolab podcast.

Roger Fisher, a prominent Harvard Law professor and sometime political advisor, had a long interest in reducing the risk of war. During the 1960s the cold war was red hot, and there was a looming threat of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and U.S. Fisher was troubled by how easy it would be for the President to launch nuclear weapons. He was the more troubled because in the early sixties the President’s joint chiefs included belligerent, brutal generals such as “bombs away LeMay“, men who were not at all troubled by the prospect of using nuclear weapons.

Which brings us to Roger Fisher’s brilliant proposal, to be implemented in the event that the U.S. decided upon a “surprise attack”, or first strike with nuclear weapons. Fisher’s sons explain:

His idea was to get a volunteer who’d have the codes put under their heart. You’d embed the codes in some sort of capsule in the guy’s heart, surgically, and he’d carry around a briefcase with a knife in it, a butcher knife, and if the President ever felt the urge to fire the missiles he has to go to the guy and say, “Well, now is time. Give me the knife.” And then he’d have to take the knife and drive it into the guy’s chest. The President has to chop out this code from the guy’s heart.

In other words, before he can kill millions of innocent people, the President must first kill the military assistant who follows him at all times with the briefcase, butcher knife, and launch codes. As Roger Fisher wrote, “He has to look at someone and realize what death is, what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. Its reality brought home.”


Talk about a brilliant, heart-stopping solution to the problem of buttons making awful things too easy to do. And really, shouldn’t we expect a President to have at least this much courage and force of conviction before he or she launches such weapons?

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