Bedlam Farm Blog Journal by Jon Katz

5 March

The Wake-Up Squad Is Bigger Than You Might Think

by Jon Katz

Long before Maria sicced the dogs on me to take wake up in the morning and get out of bed, there was a wake-up team in action and has been for years. That would be the donkeys.

Before we get up, Maria and I lie in bed and talk about the day and about how we feel about things. It’s precious time, and we both value it.

All the way back to the first Bedlam Farm, the donkeys, who stand by the gate every morning waiting to be fed, could hear us when we started speaking.

They would respond by braying loudly. If I weren’t awake by 7 a.m., they would bray loudly enough to wake the dead.

And they still do.

I realized yesterday that the moment the dogs thundered into the room to roust me, the donkeys could pick it all up with their big radar-like ears. They started braying. Between the two of them, nobody would stay in bed for too long.

I’ve heard the donkeys for so long I sometimes don’t notice them. I notice the dogs, for sure. But the donkeys need some credit for their own history of making sure I get up on time, which is when they first get hungry.

The donkeys have my number. They can get me to bring carrots or apples from 200 yards away.

5 March

A Tale Of Two Surgeries: I Won’t Speak Poorly Of My Life

by Jon Katz

As I was lying in a surgical suite yesterday, watching blood spurt out of my toe and the podiatric surgeon working at the end of the table, a friend was undergoing surgery hundreds of miles away was undergoing heart surgery to repair a heart valve, among the most serious and dangerous of heart surgeries.

As a person with diabetes, any foot surgery is potentially serious, yet the operation was minor, and the danger is insignificant.

My friend’s operation went awry, and the surgeons were forced to “crack” or open his chest. He was in intensive care following the surgery.

He went into cardiac arrest, and the doctors scrambled to revive him.

I didn’t learn until much later in the day that he died in the ICU; they could not bring him back.

I have a note above my computer which reads, “everyone in the world has it worse than I do.” It is among the most important reminders I have when I write.

Here were the two of us, each undergoing different kinds of medical procedures. I came home from mine, he will never come home from his.

My refusal to speak poorly of my life or my work was inspired by the late Rev. Billy Graham, who told me when I covered one of his crusades that I ought never to speak poorly of my life; it might be listening.

He was the first person to suggest to me that was goes on inside your head often comes out in your life. The spiritualists now call it energy, he called it God.

Whenever you write something about the difficulties in your life, Graham said, remember that someone there reading it has a lot worse than you do.

I am not about to whine about my foot surgery.

This was the most valuable advice I have ever received. Yesterday, a nurse, the doctor, and Maria all told me at different times that I was unusually “good-natured” about the medical procedures I’ve endured.

I love the compliments, but I also know they’re not entirely true.

I am good-natured sometimes and ill-natured many others. There is a lot of anger and frustration in me, though I’ve been chipping away at it for years.

It was the Rev. Graham who made a deep impression in my subconscious, something holy men and women can do, even if you think you don’t see the world their way.

Being good-natured these days is harder than it was when he gave me this advice.

Trump is a surfer of hate now, he rides on a tidal wave of rage. Every word or idea out of his mouth is a dagger headed for someone else’s heart. How does a human being as furious as this man ever sleep?

How does any follower survive him?

As I think about it, I have come to understand something many others have seen before me. Donald Trump brought with him what I can only call a Grievance And Anger movement.

Patriots who don’t like their country and elected officials who hate government.

I’ve watched Fox News a few times to see what the fuss is all about. I couldn’t bear it every day, surely not several times a day. What a grim portrait of life they present.  Every story should be headlined: “You Should Be Very Angry Today, And We Promise To Help You!”

What a parade of cynical women with blonde hair and old bald white men with no sense of humor. They all speak poorly of our lives.

The Republican Party is now, inspired by Mr. Trump, doing the same thing as Fox News. Anyone who worries about the poor or the sick or the refugee is fake, or a socialist or an enemy of the people coming to steal money and erode freedom.

Why would we be surprised that half of the country is so angry?

I watched Fox at the gym the other day while on the treadmill. The the biggest story of the afternoon was a publisher’s decision to scrap six Dr. Seuss books that even he thought were outdated and unhealthy. He said so before he died.

You might have thought from the piece that our children were being stolen from us and sent into slavery by ruthless and scheming liberals and Democrats.

Dr. Seuss wrote and published 60 books in his lifetime, many of them bestsellers. Some of the stereotypes of African-Americans and Chinese-Americans were crude and offensive to many.

Dr. Seuss changed many of his books – enthusiastically and voluntarily – before he died. He would have been the last one to object to so modest a chance in his legacy.

Is that really the most important story in the country this week?

The  Trumpian anger machine is a hungry machine, it is never full, it needs fresh rage every day. My objection to this is not really only political. It’s that I hate to see what it does to people to be fed this poisonous died every day.

Like their header-in-hiding, they are all about grievance and resentment. They sppeak poorly about the lives of half of the country. No wonder they are so unhappy and prone to conspiracy theories and lies.

What else do they really stand for now but anger and resentment?

Do they even bother will policies that will help people any longer? They seem to be against everything and for nothing. Are our only two choices t be PC bleeding hearts and furious mobs with bear spray, beating the police with American flags?

I’m happy to let the people decide. If that’s what they want, that’s what they should have. But nobody will ever convince me that that’s what most people want. That view of the world is counter to human nature. It will never prevail.

Me efforts at a spiritual life have taught me, as the Rev. Graham tried to do, that I need to pay attention to the people in my path.  And hear and see what they are telling me.

My friend who dies is telling me to be grateful, not angry or whiny, about my health care. Yesterday, another good doctor saved me from another potential catastrophe.

I have little patience for people who define their lives by the worst parts of them. Life is what we make of it, no excuses.

The people on my path all have something to say, something to teach me, even the especially nasty stalker posting vicious messages about me whenever and wherever she can.

When people like that appear in my life, as they tend to do with public people in America, I’ve learned to ask myself if the anger and cruelty inside me draw the attention of people like that. It’s true what the prophets say. Love draws love; hate draws hate.

I’ve noticed that the angry and the aggrieved very rarely appear when I’m in a good place. This summer, as I wrote about politics, they were all over me.

All of my surgeries, doctors visits and surgeries have made me restless and grumpy at times, although I am grateful I’m not taking my frustration out on doctors, nurses or Maria.

The people in the Mansion and Bishop Maginn High School don’t care much what I write or have to say. What they care the most deeply about is that I show up and help them when I can.

It’s really very simple. They teach me to listen, not talk, and to feel, not deny.

They remind me never to speak poorly about my life and remember that everyone has it worse than I do.

Nothing has given me more perspective in my life than listening to a 14-year-old describe her life during 12 years in a refugee camp, picking worms out of her food, dodging predatory guards,  and scavenging for scraps of wood to keep her brother and sister, and mother warm at night.

Her father was murdered by soldiers who killed him and burned down their house.

I learn so much from the people in my path.

I’m not sure what God is, but in my version of him, he puts people on my path for a reason and challenges me to figure it out.

4 March

A Ghost Named Nothing: From The Teeming Mind of My Granddaughter Robin

by Jon Katz

Robin came home from school today with a new drawing she wanted to share with me. It was strikingly original, Emma called it “a mood.”

The caption said “he’s a ghost named “nothing” he’s filled with saliva.”

I like it a lot, but I’ll have to think a bit about why.

4 March

Well,It Was Supposed To Be A Routine Visit To The Podiatrist

by Jon Katz

I keep joking that I’m staying away from surgeries this year, but this what they mean when they say God’s favorite jokes are the plans of humans.

Today was supposed to be a fairly routine visit to the podiatrist, but it turned out to be more exciting than that.

Some months ago, I injured my big toe. It wasn’t healing properly. Because the injury occurred around a callus that was in the wrong place in the wrong shoe every day, it just didn’t heal.

As a diabetic, I  am sometimes reluctant to tell doctors about foot injuries because they get very concerned and make me nervous. The pulse in my feet is very strong, and there is plenty of feeling in my toes.

It was troubling to me that the wound hadn’t healed, and I’ve heard too many horror stories about diabetics and their feet.

So I went to see. Dr. Daly at the Saratoga Hospital Podiatric Surgery Clinic. It took a month to get in. She is nice and very knowledgeable. I got a good lecture on how food wounds heal – it’s from the inside out, not the other way around. It was becoming ulcerate.

Calluses can block healing, and healing in a foot comes from the inside, not the outside.

She looked at my foot and in a blink, the room was full of nurses and I was on my back and she was going to work on my toe with surgical precision. I’m now wearing a foot boot, I can’t go to the gym or stay on my feet for long (poor Maria.)

I suspect this was a procedure, not a surgery, but it sure looked and felt like surgery to me. I’m on antibiotics again for a month, and I can only shower with a special waterproof wrap around my leg.

The operation took about an hour and Maria was with me she drove me home, which was quite fortunate. I asked Dr. Daly if I could take a photo of her for my blog while she was drilling holes in my toe, and she seemed startled as if no one had ever asked her that before.

She nodded and said sure.

We did manage to stop at Moby Rick’s Fish Place in Saratoga Springs on the way home and came out with a pound of fresh jumbo shrimp (dinner), their homemade cocktail sauce,  four packets of frozen lobster meat, some fish cakes, some crab cakes, and a tin of Indonesian lump crab meat.

Dinner was delicious.

I will be mostly housebound but we will eat well. Perhaps I should be allowed to go outside for a while.

I might even make another crabmeat pizza if I’m allowed by Nurse Ratchett. I am married to a saint, but not a natural caretaker. It’s good I did a big food shop the other day.

I’m sorry about the gym, I’ll miss it. Life happens and happens.

I can move around, I really won’t need much help.

Once again, I went to the doctor at the right time, and once again, I am fortunate. The foot is not infected but is ulcerated and could have gotten infected. That is something diabetics don’t want.

I take great care controlling my diabetes 2, it paid off this time. I’m once again fortunate to have great doctors and am learning over and over again not to wait too long to see them when I have a problem.

Happy to be home, the shrimp was delicious.

4 March

Getting A Dog (Part Two) Can Be A Spiritual Experience. If You Let It.

by Jon Katz

“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.” – Milan Kundera.

For me, getting a dog is a spiritual experience. It may be rescuing one, or it may be buying one, but it not a moral decision for me; it a spiritual one.

Since the pandemic began, more than 12 million Americans have added a dog to their lives. For me, a dog is a profoundly spiritual experience. This piece is about how I do it. The first piece in the series ran yesterday.

There is this idea that there is only one way to get a dog, which is to rescue it to prove our compassion and morality. I respect that and have done that.

But I’ve landed – perhaps evolved – to a different place. The moral part of getting a dog for me is making sure I get one that can love me and be loved by me.

If I am careful, I can be almost 100 percent certain that my dog will not be disliked, resented, ignored, exiled to a yard or basement,  returned, or neglected even before it comes.

And I am careful.

Until I met Maria, my dogs were my best and only friends.

They sat by me while I wrote, they walked with me, grounded me, and led me to some of the best and richest experiences of my life – moving to the country, writing books about dogs, meeting Maria, my therapy work in hospice, and eldercare and with refugee children.

They have consoled and loved me during my six years of living alone on a farm. I could not have done it without them.

Dogs led me to my life as a book writer and my subsequent life as a blogger and writer with a farm. Dogs kept love alive for me when it was absent from my life.

Dogs did not replace people in my life; they helped me find people and learn to love them.

Like Kundera, I sat on a hillside with dogs on a glorious afternoon countless times when I moved to the country, and it was Eden. It was peace, the kind I have rarely found with humans. It was what I dreamt of.

Sometimes I bought my dog from a breeder. Sometimes I went to a shelter. Twice I went to rescue groups.

I’ve learned how best to get the dog I wanted and could love and train fully and lovingly in all of these instances.

But I stopped asking other people about it. My point is that finding a dog for me is an intensely personal and individual experience.

Just as there are no two dogs just alike, there are no two people.

That’s why nobody can tell me how to get a dog or what kind of a dog to get because I am the only one who can know.

The answer is inside of me, not outside. I would never dare to tell a person there is only one way to get a dog or what that way might be.

I have to go inside. I have to see the dog in my head, so I will recognize it when I see it.

I have to sit on that hillside in my mind and picture the dog. I did this for Zinnia just last year. I pictured a quiet dog who could sit silently by my side while I wrote along. Writers work alone. Dogs are important.

The more I put into it, the more I get back. It usually takes me between one and two years.

In the case of Zinnia, our newest dog, I pictured a dog who would never threaten, frighten or harm a human or another dog.  For me, getting a dog is all about love and nourishment. I can’t and won’t have a dog that will hurt people or frighten.

I thought long and hard about dogs’ trainability because training is our spiritual connection with them and our way of communicating with them. Training is the language by which we teach them how to live harmoniously with us and safely with the rest of the world.

I read a lot about dogs and breed temperament. I saw that the dog that fit into my dreams and plans was most likely to be  Lab, a dog bred for centuries to hang out with hunters and fishermen and have a soft mouth for retrieving ducks and fish and be so safe around children that kids can often ride them.

They are also one of the smartest breeds.

They are active but able to be still.  They love to be around people.

They don’t bark much or excessively; they aren’t territorial. They are not aggressive to dogs or people, give and expect affection, are highly trainable, and bark when strangers appear, and housebreak quickly and easily.

I wanted a therapy dog to train and replace Red, my border collie who died last year.

I’ve had Labs before Zinnia, but not for a few years. I researched them all over again. I contacted four breeders I heard about, read about, or were recommended to me. Good breeders know good breeders.

I found one in Connecticut; her name was Lenore Severn of Stonewall Labradors.

She and a vet had been breeding Labs together for nearly half a century. I knew would have the data I needed, the histories I wanted to see, the medical records I needed.

I would have to wait a long time for a puppy.

I wanted to know that back for five generations, no Lab of hers had bitten anyone, harmed a dog or child, or suffered from joint and leg problems.

Lenore loves her dogs, and I warn people who ask about her that she will fight for them. I appreciate that about her.

I explained to her in great detail what I wanted and needed in a dog – the therapy work is important –  and asked her to monitor her little carefully for the right dog for me.

Zinnia is exactly the dog I imagined, precisely the one I asked for, in every way the dog I have.

I can’t describe the powerful experience when you come across the dog in  your mind, the dog of your imagination. You know, and they know.

That is the spiritual part for me. I love this new dog more than any living thing other than my wife and daughter. In our training, I barely have to speak. She intuits what I want and what I don’t like and does what she needs to do.

I have never had a dog. I can train so well without even thinking about it. When I walk to the road to get the mail, she sits down 20 or 30 feet away; she knows I don’t want her near the road. But I never had to tell her.

She is not the perfect dog; there is no such thing. And I didn’t need to buy any books about it.

During the covid assault on our lives, I couldn’t go inside an assisted care facility because it was quarantined; I open the car door.

She sits by the front door until she was let in, visits the residents from room to room, and when she was done, she was let out and came to the car and jumped in.

She didn’t really need me at all.

Those visits were so important to the residents. And to me. On a sunny day, I sit out in the yard or on the back porch and look up at the sun and close my eyes.

She lies by my side and stays with me. We watch the clouds together.

That’s Eden; that’s the spiritual dimension.

So is walking in the woods with her and knowing she will never run off, even if she sees a rabbit running on the path. She comes to the Post Office to get a biscuit.

People and children run-up to her on the street, something that isn’t a good idea. I love seeing the pleasure she gives them.

I am selfish. My dogs are important to me. Had I gone out and taken the first dog who needed a home, I would probably not have these experiences.

Had I allowed others to tell me what to do, I probably wouldn’t either.

I try to do good in other ways.

Having a spiritual relationship with a dog is not all that hard. There are millions of dogs, purebred and rescue, that would love to come home with us.

Rescuing a dog is absolutely the right thing for so many people to do.

It is not the right thing for every person to do all the time.

To get a dog like Zinnia, I knew I had to go to a conscientious and accomplished breeder. There was no other way to be sure. And in my therapy and hospice work, I have to be sure.

Dogs are an extension of me.  They bring out the best parts of me and expose the worst.

They support me and my life in many ways. Zinnia and Fate and But are worth every minute of the time I spent looking for them and deciding about them.

But every dog is not the right dog for every person, and every person is not the right person for every dog. That takes clarity, thought, meditation, and some work and time.

I don’t advise strangers, but so many people are getting dogs now.

I think it’s important to offer some. All I would say is this:

I can’t tell you what kind of dog to get or where or how; I’m not that arrogant.

I can suggest that you make it your personal and individual choice. And that you wait for it.

That you think about it and ask a lot of questions, that you picture it and define the spiritual connection you seek with one of these remarkable animals.

I have been surprised to learn that what I imagine as my intent often becomes what is true. When I first saw Zinnia, I saw the dog in my head, and she rode home in my lap, where she fell asleep. I had my dog; she had her home.

What makes it a spiritual experience is getting the dog you want and need. I’m afraid that isn’t an instant moral decision, as gratifying as that can be. A spiritual dog is your dog, not somebody else’s dog.

The good news is that it is possible. The hard news is that nothing so precious in life is easy or quick.

Photo/sketch from The Domestic Dog: It’s Evolution, Behavior And Interactions With People, by James Serpell.

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