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Originally posted May 7, 2015

I saved Tolstoy when I was 25 years old. He was on day two of death row at the pound. A 65-pound Akita-Husky mix, I always described Tolstoy as a creamsicle: orange on top, white underbelly –with one eye blue and the other brown.

Tolstoy: four on the floor, and none on the ground

He was a stubborn, aggressive, playful, single-minded dog who wanted everything his way and wouldn’t listen to what anyone told him to do unless he could see a way that it would immediately benefit him.

In short, the perfect dog for the 25-year old me, a reflection of my own self.

I worked hard to train him, every day working and playing with him. But there was always a wild side of him that wouldn’t go away: a wild side I loved & hated.

Tolstoy was a hunter, and he would spend hours hunting a single gopher – as my then-girlfriend’s father found out when Tolstoy dug a trench 6-inches deep across his yard. Three ways. In the course of a single afternoon.

And when he did catch a gopher, he would choke it down as quickly as he could, knowing that I’d try to take it away from him. I could always tell if he caught a gopher at the park even if I didn’t see it, by the stomach ache he’d have in conjunction with the death gas emanating from his butt that night at home.

I had a lot of great days with that dog, but there was one particular day in Golden Gate Park that I will remember until the day I die: it was a banner day for Tol. I was on my in-line skates (it was 1996), and Tolstoy was been off-leash, having a great time running with me, and staying out of trouble. You have to understand what a miracle this is for a Husky, given the sheer number of things to hunt on a Sunday in the park.

We made multiple circuits from the Conservatory of Flowers out to Crossover Drive and back – and it was on our to-be final circuit that we stopped at the little pond right before the 19th Avenue overpass. You know the one, with that big waterfall, filled with skanky, foamy water. There are a few ducks floating on the pond, and the hunter in Tol is fascinated.

Up until this point, he’s also hated the water and swimming. Something about me throwing him in Lake Tahoe when I first got him. So I watch, bemused, as he gets down into the water as far as he possibly can go, just keening for a duck, reaching with one paw as he struggles to stay on land…

…and then he slips into the water. And the first look on his face is “What have I done?!?” but instinct kicks in and he starts to swim. And his focus immediately becomes ducks. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks. And I try calling him a few times, but it is obvious that he isn’t coming out for anything. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks.

And the ducks would swim just a little bit ahead of him, and were just like, “Quack.” And since this is Berkeley I must state that no duck was ever in any real danger in this story.

A crowd starts to gather, and then other dogs happening by see Tolstoy chasing the ducks in the water, and think, “Hey, that looks great!” and they jump in too. And I am incredibly relieved to see that it’s not only my dog who is so ill-behaved that he’d go barreling into this skanky little pond. Soon, there is a pack of three or four dogs, all chasing each other and the ducks around in this foamy, gross water. And a throng of people gather to watch the escapade, laughing, yelling, some rooting for the dogs, others rooting for the ducks…

The difference between Tolstoy and the other dogs becomes evident, however, as every other dog eventually heeds its human’s voice and gets out of the water. Tolstoy refuses to heed my calls. And I know the little mutt can hear me, because his ears twitch involuntarily when I yell his name.

After about 25 minutes of full sprint chasing the ducks, he starts tiring out. Less of his head is sticking out of the water; he’s swimming slower. Much slower. And pretty soon, it dawns on me: he’s going to drown unless I do something. So I head over to the Eastern edge of the pond, where there is a little dirt depression, and start stripping down. I take off my skates, I take off my socks, I remove my fanny-pack (hey, it was 1996!), t-shirt and hat and set them all down in a pile and wait for the moment to come.

At a certain point, Tolstoy’s legs cramp up, and he tries to crawl out of the water onto the rock in the middle of the pond. He gets out on the rock, and his back leg is spasming straight behind him…googada-googada… and he can’t hold it, so he just falls over sideways into the water.

And that was the moment when I hit the water – that nasty, skanky water – in a shallow dive, and took three strokes to cross the pond to where Tolstoy was floundering. I found I could stand in the chest-high water, so I grabbed Tolstoy, and threw him over one shoulder and started making my way back to the edge of the pond to the great amusement and applause of the gathered throng.

I drug the wet, dripping, smelly dog and myself – who was now also wet, dripping and smelly – out to the edge of the pond. I set him on the muddy bank, where he was almost too weak to shake off. Almost, but not quite: he had enough left in the tank to drench my t-shirt, socks and fanny pack.

Epilog: After that, he was a swimmer. Tolstoy chased ducks until he almost drowned two more times. Eventually, I realized he wasn’t the one who needed to change, and I got him a doggy life jacket. And, I learned to enjoy my time on the beach alone while Tolstoy let his wild side take him further out in the Bay.

Blue Moon

Originally posted April 8, 2015

I am a professional fundraising auctioneer. This means that I work with non-profit organizations to help plan and implement their fundraising auctions. Then the night of their event I get to get onstage and encourage people to spend-more-than-they-should-on-stuff-they-don’t-need-in-support-of-a-great-cause.

It is the best job in the world. I love my work, in no small part because each and every day I go to work I am using my powers for good – helping to make the world a better place.

Fundraising auctions are fun, but they are a challenge, too. Every event I do, there are four or five little things that go wrong. And once in a great while, there is a catastrophe that tests the limits of my experience.

A few years back I was doing the auction for a local organization that benefits the homeless. And this particular event, the auction was transcending. Things were selling for double what they’d sold in the past.

We’re right in the heart of the auction, and an auction lot takes off.

$2,000 – 22 – 24 – 26 – 28, now three! Three thousand, 32, a board member named Nick is in at 35-hundred, woman in the back is in at 38-hundred, back to Nick at four thousand? Yes, no, maybe so? Sold, three-thousand-eight-hundred and the place goes nuts.

I flip the page on my script, eager to get on to the next item when a volunteer comes running up to me: we need a doctor in the back of the room. I’ve had things like this happen before. Eight months before this at a different auction, a bidder almost choked to death on her dinner, and Dr Angel – no kidding – saved her life with the Heimlich. So I know that the most important thing is to get someone who is CPR certified to respond, quickly.

But when I look in the back of the room, I see the second place bidder from the last lot, Nick, flat on his back on the floor, and the event chair giving him chest compressions. And I realize we’re all headed into uncharted territory.

I tell everyone that we’re going to take a break from the stage while we wait for the EMTs, and I meet with the staff to figure out what to do next.

As the time slowly ticks by while we wait for the EMTs, it becomes evident that Nick has died. I’m thinking, but not feeling as we discuss what to do. I know that the crowd needs some closure, something to help make sense of the evening. And the Development Director tells me her program really needs the money we were going to raise.

We agree that doing the rest of the auction would be crass, so we decide to just do the fund-a-need: where people simply pledge money to the cause. Done right, a fund-a-need can bring a crowd together.

After the EMTs take Nick out, we get back on stage, and I tell the crowd that Nick was a big supporter of the cause (he was a board member), and he would have wanted us to make something positive happen. I tell the crowd that it is up to us to come together to save many lives where we couldn’t save one. And with an up swell of emotion, we go on to have the most successful fund-a-need they’ve ever had.

After the event, alone for the first time in my car about to call my wife, it finally hits me; the emotions finally arrive. Hard. I’ve killed a bidder. Instead of good, my powers did bad. It was one of those subjects so serious, everyone played it down. “Of course you didn’t kill him!” my friends would say.

But I felt like I did.

And it haunted me. I’d get going in an auction, start to ramp up the emotions, and suddenly get worried that I might be pushing someone too far. I’d flinch internally whenever a volunteer came running up mid-auction with a question.

It wasn’t until that same event, a year later, chatting with one of Nick’s friends who had been at his table the year before. “I want you to know,” he said, “That Nick died having the time of his life. His heart attack was massive, his death instantaneous. And if he wasn’t at this event, he would have been at home, eating dinner alone.

“Instead, he died surrounded by friends, having a great time.” He could tell I was touched, so he put his hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You know what his last words were? His last words were: ‘Can you believe that lot just sold for $3,800?!?”

And in that moment, he released that yoke of guilt from my shoulders. In that moment, he restored my confidence in our powers. Because in that moment, he reminded me that we’re all here for the short term. And anything we can do to make each other’s lives more enjoyable, more meaningful, in any of these small little moments is using our powers for good.

Camping

Originally posted September 3rd, 2014

When I was nine years old my father and I set out on the most epic camping trip of all time. It was equal parts pilgrimage, catharsis, and adventure with two or three parts of either dogged determination or sheer stupidity. It was the 70s, it was harder to tell the difference between the two back then.

Cumberland Island, Georgia: excellent camping, history, and pretend gun-fights

My father was leaving my mother, for good this time, and driving from northern California to Miami, Florida. My mother had fled Florida for California a year earlier, forcing my father to quit his job and follow her in an attempt to keep our family together. Now, he was returning home, and the timing was perfect, because along the way he was going to go camping in Georgia with the school where he used to teach (and I used to attend). I got to go along for the ride, as long as I promised to come back.

My dad had a 1970s VW pickup truck. Basically, a VW bus that had been chopped to turn it into a truck. VWs were the antonym of reliable back in the 70s, and this truck was as unreliable as they came. My father kept it running with willpower alone, and this is the vehicle we were going to drive across the United States. We had no chance.

The first time we broke down was in Arizona. Not even one state from our starting point. Although to be fair, California is so long that we had already traveled a few east coast states.

Somewhere in Texas we picked up a hitchhiker to keep my dad company and help with the driving. It was the 70s, things were different back then.

We only made it halfway through Texas before the truck broke down again, and this time my dad opted to rent a car and tow his truck to his parent’s house in Miami, our final destination. The camping trip started the next day, and we were going to be there.

The only catch was, we had no car, he had little cash, and my grandparents weren’t about to spring for much of either. So we took a train from Miami to Jacksonville, Florida. And then we hitchhiked to Cumberland Island – a mere 50 miles. But what I remember is standing on an onramp with my dad, backpacks at our feet and thumbs out for every car that passed.

I only remember one car picking us up: it was from two off-duty police officers, who thought it was far out that my dad and I had some so far to make this camping trip and they took us across state lines to make sure we made it. Along the way they shared a few laughs with my dad, and a couple of joints as well. It was the 70s…

By the time we got to Georgia I had a minor case of pinkeye and we were too late to catch the last ferry to the island. We slept under the sign for the ferry that night, camping in the wide open. It was here, in the dark Georgia night, under the sign for the ferry that we met Yogi, a travelling German doctor who just happened to have some ointment to cure pinkeye in his huge backpack. He told me that my eyes would be sensitive, so he also gave me his conductor’s cap to keep the sun out of them.

When we got to the island the next day, it was epic! Everyone was fired up to see us. They had huge tents set up, and I was excited to see friends I had been torn away from more than a year ago. No sooner had we set foot in the campground then it started raining buckets, confining us to the tents. We had a ball, playing like I hadn’t played with other kids in months.

That night, while we slept, raccoons snuck into our food tent and ate everything. I mean everything. Over 30 kids and 6 adults with not a bite to eat and no place to buy it on the island.

I was starving, and riding the ferry back to the mainland I managed to guilt a couple into giving me and my friends all of their camping leftovers – with nothing but my puppy dog eyes.

The trip home was far more anticlimactic. The Loblolly crew gave us a ride to Jacksonville, and from there we took the train to Miami.

It was the last big adventure I had with my dad before he got married and started family 2.0. It marked a major turning point in our entire family’s lives, and the last time I’d get to spend so much time with him, just he and I. It may sound hellish, but it was heaven to me.

Funny thing, I always thought that this was what life was like in the 70s: hitchhiking, sleeping in parking lots, living on the road. I thought that it was simply a different time. But the older I get the more I realize that it wasn’t just that 70s that were different, my family was pretty freaky, too.