Lucy: I was her human.

by Ben Carter


Lucy passed away this weekend. We found out she had inoperable cancer in July. We had one month to spoil her. She spoiled us for nine years.

adopted Lucy from the Lexington Humane Society. If you like this essay or if you loved Lucy (or both), please consider donating a small amount to the Lexington Humane Society so that they can help other people find epic dogs like mine.

If you don't want to read 10,000 words about my dog, check out this video and slideshow. To the extent they do not say enough, that's what the essay's for. 

Lucy wasn't eating. 

She stood over her full bowl, turned her head, and looked at me over her shoulder. She wagged her tail. 

She hadn't eaten in more than twenty-four hours. This was not like Lucy. Since I brought her home from the pound in July of 2003, Lucy's gastronomic adventures have become some of the most often and most fondly recounted McCarter family legends. 

A fifty-pound, border collie mix, Lucy is black with a spot of white fur on her chest. Her feet and nose are brindled and the hair around her ears is crimped. I took her to the Woodland Park dog swim in Lexington during law school and 75% of all of the dogs were some version of black, collie-mix mutt. Lucy is an American classic. She is also just the right size and has just the right disposition to stand on her hind legs and grab food off an unattended countertop.

She has helped herself on at least two occasions to trays of cooling brownies. Chocolate can kill dogs, but it never phased Lucy. You might think that having delicious brownies stolen and your dog's health potentially compromised by chocolate exposure would inspire a vigilant and rigorous habit of not leaving food on the countertop. You would be wrong. It took us years to get this right. Now, though, our countertops are completely devoid of any food. Not because we are clean people, but because nothing is safe from Lucy when it is on a countertop. 

Hey guys. What's for dinner?

Not long after we got Lucy, we returned home to find a half-eaten jar of chunky peanut butter on the kitchen floor. It was about the only thing Lucy has ever half-eaten in her life. 

It was a forty ounce plastic jar of Jif—the big boy. Lucy had chewed the red plastic lid off of the top. After gaining access to the jar by brute resolve, Lucy was now presented with a delicious engineering problem: the jar was just wide enough to allow her to fit her snout into the jar, but only so much. So, while we were away Lucy licked deeper and deeper into the peanut butter. She licked until her snout could not fit any tighter into the jar and her tongue could not extend any deeper. A domed, crusted wall of peanut chunks remained; the dome perfectly described the limits of my dog's tongue. I wish I had taken a picture. No artifact would more perfectly capture Lucy's maniacal dedication to a goal. 

Now this jar was made for a dog's tongue.

When we first got Lucy, we did not own a trash can with a lid. Two days later, we did. Occasionally, she would still manage to nibble a piece of the plastic bag enough to tip the can over while we were gone. Those were good days for her. 

She once ate a tub of butter. Her stomach was tight and she needed to lie down, but I could tell she considered the effort worth some temporary discomfort. 

She also tried to eat a quesadilla maker. She chipped away at the hard plastic to reach the hardened cheese that had dripped into the machine's inaccessible crevices. We returned from running errands and found a completely clean and completely destroyed appliance in the kitchen floor. 

Lucy ate my sister's wedding cake. Not before the wedding, thank God, but a year later. My mom had placed the frozen leftovers that couples are supposed to eat on their one-year anniversary on the stove to thaw. While we were away, Lucy nosed her way into the foil-wrapped cake and licked her way through the layers of cake and icing. Instead of grabbing the cake and devouring it on the floor, she left the foil shell intact and on the countertop. 

When we returned, I let Lucy out into my parents' backyard. She wandered around a bit and then threw up a massive volume of white vomit. We didn't discover why she was so sick until a few minutes later when my Mom picked up the cake on the stove. It now weighed precisely the weight of the foil that had wrapped the cake my dog was now licking in the yard. 

*     *     *

That my vomit-licking dog was not eating the cup of dried dog food in front of her was a problem. Erin and I began researching "loss of appetite in dogs" online and became concerned that Lucy had a twisted stomach. Surely, the only thing that would keep Lucy from eating was being physically incapable of eating. So, on July 17, 2012 I took her to our vet on my way to the office. I had a mediation beginning at 9:00 a.m. I dropped Lucy off when the clinic opened at 7:30. At 8:15, my vet called me. I took notes:

"mass effect where the liver and spleen normally sit"
"tumor that's growing"
"free fluid and blood in abdomen"
"hemangio sarcoma"

I'm sorry, doctor: can you spell that?

"h–e–m–a–n–g–i–o"
"blood-born tumors"
"she had an acute bleed sometime in the past; why her stomach is tight"
"irregularity to the tumor; can't take one lobe of the liver out"
"this is not good for her; very generalized; not anything that can be done surgically"

My dog is going to die. Soon. 

I'm sure vets have a lot of practice talking with grown men who are sobbing on the other end of the phone. Dr. McCoy was very patient.  

She explained that she was going to do a red blood cell count test and repeat it in a few hours to determine whether Lucy was currently suffering from an acute bleed or whether she was stable enough to take home. The way I understand it, hemangio sarcomas cause bleeds. If Lucy was still losing a lot of blood into her abdomen, she would need to be put down. 

*     *     *

I have learned a lot about myself during the process of grieving for and caring for my sick dog. The first thing I learned is that I am weak.

When my vet explained to me that Lucy may need to be put to sleep sooner rather than later, part of me hoped for sooner. Part of me hoped that I would not have to pick up my dog and take her home and live with her and love her knowing that our days together were numbered and that she was doomed. Part of me hoped that my memories of Lucy's boundless vigor would not also include memories of sickness, weakness, discomfort. I did not want to see Lucy stumble. And, I desperately hoped to avoid ever needing to decide that it was "time."  

People began to show up in the office for the 9:00 mediation. I put the Kleenex box back in the drawer. Erin was waiting an update from me. I couldn't call her and compose myself in time for the mediation. Plus, I wanted to wait for the results from the next red blood cell count test before calling. I wanted to know what I needed to tell her. 

Erin texted me at 9:24. "Heard from vet?"  

"Not yet. In mediation."

The mediation fell apart around 11:00 and Dr. McCoy called not long after that to tell me that Lucy's red blood cell count was stable and that she could go home with me. I called Erin on the way to the vet's office. 

"Lucy has cancer and the vet expects she might live two months. There's nothing they can do. I'm going to pick her up right now. I'm sorry to have to tell you this way." I had to say it all very fast. I could barely say it all before I couldn't say anything else. 

Erin wanted me to ask Dr. McCoy two questions: 

"Is she in pain?" 

"She doesn't seem to be, but I can give you Tramadol for when she is." 

When. 

"Can she still go on hikes?" 

"I wouldn't." 

Also, no more frisbee. Lucy had been catching frisbee eight days before her diagnosis. 

Dr. McCoy told me to boil chicken breasts for Lucy and mix it with rice and vegetables. She told me Lucy and I could take short walks around the block. And, she told me what to watch for. White or pale gums would indicate another acute bleed. Watch for if she is acutely down or having trouble breathing. 

"Is her belly going to get more distended or will the steroids reduce that?" 

"Her belly is going to get more distended."

This is what I feared. She will become sicker before my eyes. 

*     *     *

These are the stories of how my dog lived and how she died. They are the stories of how I loved her and how I grieve her. 

I'm writing these stories before she dies because I know myself. I know that when she dies, the memory of her passing will be so painful I won't want to remember it and that any memory of her larger-than-life feats and the unceasing joy with which she lived will open a still-empty place in my chest. Something hard and metallic will get caught in my throat. Any memory will be bittersweet and wrapped in gauze. After Lucy dies, I will not confront the pain. I will move on. Now, I can't avoid the pain. Now, the rawness of my fear and persistent metallic taste in my mouth feels appropriate. Feeling any other way would feel a betrayal of the fierce exuberance with which she lived. Now is the time to write these stories. Because I know I am weak enough to want to forget. 

I have lost three cats as an adult: Blue, Crooktail, and Marvin. I know from losing them that my warm memories will still be tainted years later by the bitter sense that all of them died before they should have and in ways unfitting to the way they lived. I expect that if I don't write this now, I never will. So, I have to do it now even though every moment that my fingers are on the keys is a moment that my fingers are not in Lucy's fur. 

*     *     *

When I first learned Lucy was going to die, my instincts and habits migrated immediately towards minimizing my personal grief and pain. I knew, immediately, how devastating each moment at home would be, how crushingly sweet each opportunity to pet her, feed her, walk her would be, part of me wanted to not be able to take her home. Part of me wanted the doctor to report that Lucy continued to bleed heavily in her abdomen and needed to be put to sleep that day. 

While I believe everyone experiences grief deeply, we will also respond to that grief differently. For me, my natural instinct is to flee from it. This experience has been a process of me watching myself attempt to turn away and forcing myself to return. I am trying to live at the center of this fear, the place where my throat gets tight and hard. 

But, describing the pain as having a "center" strikes me as too facile a description and too generous towards my own motivations. The map  of this pain is not a circle, but rather a number of circles. It's multifocal, and I have not planted myself heroically inside the middle of the pain, but rather I wander in search of a less painful place. As I away from "doing the right thing" for Lucy (being present, caring for her, arranging her death), I wander toward the pain of regret and shame. Lucy and I both are trying to find the most comfortable positions in a damned painful situation. 

Some people are better at grief, at pain, than others. I am about as good at frisbee as I am bad about grief. I took a test once to determine my Enneagram character type. I am the "pleasure seeking" type, the "epicure". One of the defining characteristics of an epicure is the extreme lengths to which he or she will go to avoid pain. I spent most of my twenties drinking and smoking myself away from pain, self-doubt, and an enduring sense that I am fundamentally deficient. The hardest part about a sudden sobriety was the return of those feelings, which were now combined with feelings of dread and failure and the fear that I had squandered all the opportunities my parents, teachers, and country had provided me. 

The truth is that we cannot escape the pain. And, we shouldn't try to. Grieving well means choosing a pain we can live with. I don't mean this to sound noble. I'm trapped. If I could find an escape or a less painful place, I would. This grief has stripped from me, finally and again, the illusion of control. I want to run, but there is nowhere to run that is less awful than where I am right now. 

I am ashamed that I ever sought to avoid the grief that Lucy deserves by hoping—partly—that she would need to be put to sleep the day of her diagnosis. 

When Dr. McCoy explained that they offered in-home euthanasia, my psyche immediately recoiled at the idea, "I do not want a spot in my house to be 'the spot where Lucy died.'" The thought was too horrible to even contemplate. 

Thank God I was able to take Lucy home with me. Living with this grief and caring for Lucy while she is sick has made me a better person. 

Now, I hope that we will be able to put Lucy to sleep at home. It will crush us, but it will be the best, most comfortable way for her to go. Our vet is only available on weekdays and may not be available even then for in-home euthanasia if they are short-staffed at the clinic. So, I have arranged for Dr. Lauralee Rubsch, a vet with a mobile practice, to be "on call" when the time comes. I can't tell you how comforting it is to know that we have this plan in place.

I understand that my obligation is not to my comfort, but to Lucy's. My habitual selfishness is my continual shame. 

The vet has offered to take Lucy to the crematorium. Or, she said, I could take her. 

"Whichever you prefer." 

It never occurred to me that a man might prefer to take his animal to get cremated himself. Now, I'm thinking that I actually would prefer to take her myself. It seems like it's my responsibility, my obligation. Somehow, dropping her off in a stranger's mobile vet unit to be transported to a crematorium would be falling short of my obligation to my dog. Failing to do everything I can for her myself—both now and after she dies—would fail to fully honor Lucy's contribution to my life. 

When our cat, Crooktail, died in Palau, I took him to the vet's office and had them bury him in the jungle behind their clinic. I am still disappointed in myself for failing to bury him in our backyard. The love you give to a pet is not just the lighthearted camaraderie, not just the adventures, the snuggles. The love you give to a pet is also the burden of grief you bear for them. With Crooktail, I feel like I tried to get all of the easy, fun stuff and wriggled out of the hard stuff. With Lucy, I refuse to wriggle out. I'm becoming better at living with the grief and becoming more dedicated to honoring her life by being present for the process of her death. 

Now, I don't want to avoid the grief. Rather, I want my grief to evolve, to grow, to become a grief worthy of my fearless dog. 

*     *     *

Lucy has lived in three places in her life: Lexington, Boulder, and now Louisville. There is no question that the happiest year of her life was the year she spent in Boulder. She stayed there with a friend of mine while Erin and I lived in Palau. Jessica had two dogs, a house just outside of Boulder, and a job that allowed her to take the dogs on long walks almost daily long walks in the Colorado hills. 

Jessica came to Lexington to pick Lucy up before we left for Palau. Lucy hopped right up into the back seat of the car with her friends, Jolie and Sadie. Lucy is always ready for an adventure. 

I returned a year later and went directly to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Four days and one nomination for President later, Jessica came to Denver and picked me up to reunite me with my dog. 

"Um, Ben," Jessica said as we drove through the outskirts of Denver. "Lucy has put on some weight."

"Okay." 

"Brad let her eat as much as she wanted."

"Oh." I paused. I considered the full implications of this statement. "Wow." 

Lucy is a pound dog. She lives with a scarcity mentality. Left to her own devices, she eats until she makes herself sick, gets sick, eats the sick, and then eats some more. 

I always kept Lucy trim because I didn't want her carrying any more weight than she needed to. Lucy is a frisbee dog and she can't help not soaring through the air to catch the frisbee. I worry about her hips and the wear that this jumping must cause. 

When Lucy bounded out Jessica's door, I thought Jessica had taken a small black bear cub as a pet. Lucy's hair was long and she was carrying 15 more pounds on her frame. It had been one great year for Lucy dog. Eating as much as she could, hiking, swimming, hanging with two other dogs. No dog could hope for more. 

Lucy, having eaten her fill...

Should I feel sad or ashamed that the best year of my dog's life was the year in which I was absent from it? I don't. Instead, I feel eternally grateful to Jessica for giving Lucy the life she deserved and satisfied with myself that I helped that happen by getting Lucy from the pound the summer before my first year of law school. 

I suspect that Lucy's heaven will look remarkably similar to the Boulder she already knows. It will smell of pine and her bowl and her belly will always be full. 

*     *     *

I got Lucy in the summer of 2003. I was doing some superficial renovations to a house my parents had bought in Lexington for my sister and me to live in. I was beginning law school and she was fresh out of college. I had just moved from DC where I had plopped down for a year after traveling after college to five countries for a year on a Watson Fellowship. I was excited to have a place to settle down. And, settling down meant having a dog. Nothing was a more powerful symbol in my mind of being settled than having a dog. 

I wasn't renting. I wasn't traveling. I was home. 

A few weeks before I got Lucy, my extended family gathered in Maui for Camp Jasper. In Maui, the Hana Highway wends its way along the coastline to dozens of waterfalls, swimming holes, and diving rocks. Early one morning, I loaded into my cousin Brent's rented Jeep and he and his wife, Julie and I headed toward Hana. We stopped at a sandwich shop at the start of the trip and picked up sandwiches, yes, but also one of the owner's dogs, Lani. The owner explained that each of her dogs knew the road and all of the attractions along the way. Lani was a canine tour guide. Sure enough, as we parked at various attractions, Lani hopped out of the Jeep first and ran to the trailhead leading to the falls, pool, or overlook. She waited for us there. She knew where to go no matter where we parked. 

I wanted a dog like this. I wanted a dog that was ready for adventure. Smart enough to keep up and fast enough for frisbee. I got all of this when I got Lucy. 

I picked up Lucy from the Lexington Humane Society. She had been dropped off in the Night Drop box a month earlier. The workers named her "Lucky." I thought it was lame to have a pound dog named "Lucky", so I dropped the "k". Lucky had been described on petfinder.com as a border collie mix. When I got to the pound, they gave me a ball and Lucky and I went out into the small side yard. I threw the ball, she sprinted after it, grabbed it off the bounce, and brought it back to me. 

She did not drop it. She stood there, head down, her jaw mashing the tennis ball. Mash. Mash. Mash. 

We [mash] could [mash] work [mash]on [mash] that. Mash. Mash. Mash. 

Alright. Let's go. 

Lucy, née Lucky, hopped up into the shotgun side of my red '97 Toyota pickup truck and we were off. 

When we got home, Lucy bounded out of the truck and into the backyard. Three seconds later, she was neck deep in the 4'x3' water feature that sat—neglected, stagnant,  and foul—in the back of the yard. A week earlier, I had pulled a broken glass bong out of the bottom of the pool. The bong wasn't mine, but the dog that now had her front paws on the side of the pond and was scrabbling out and grinning widely most certainly was. 

We were home.

*     *     *

I had done a lot of reading about adopting a dog and dog ownership before picking Lucy up from the pound. So, I knew that I needed to show Lucy a) that I was boss and b) that she should pay attention to me. One of the ways I was supposed to do this was by tying Lucy's leash to my belt and going about my business around the house. This would communicate to her that she should follow me around. 

I have participated in a lot of unnecessary bullshit in my life—the SATs, traffic court, law school—but tethering my dog, my working dog that understands and responds to complete sentences, that knows where every cat in our neighborhood lives, that twice returned to my car parked miles away from where we got separated in the woods, tethering my dog to me completely, absolutely unnecessary. 

Tethering her to me was like throwing Br'er Rabbit directly into the briar patch. 

This is what is so hard about losing Lucy: for the last 9 years I have never been alone in a room; she has been my constant companion. 

She has also been my partner in the only magic trick I know. 

A well-trained dog is like a magic trick. I always felt like my relationship with Lucy was a kind of sorcery. Here is a force—an incredibly fast, agile, and tough force—that exists outside of my body but over which I could exert some (occasionally minimal) control over. 

Lucy is a frisbee dog to her core. It is what she was born to do. When I was looking to adopt a dog, I knew I wanted a dog that would play frisbee with me, which meant I was looking for some variety of collie, setter, heeler, or shepherd. I got a little of each with Lucy. 

In college, I played Ultimate Frisbee and disc golf. I am not an athletic guy, but I can throw a frisbee. If you plotted my athletic skills in various sports on a bell chart, my frisbee skills would be just to the right of my similarly useless and oddly formidable ping-pong skills. 

No way I was going to get a dog that couldn't play frisbee. 

I probably read more about "how to teach your dog frisbee" than I did "how to not fail out of law school" in the summer before my 1L year. So, when I brought Lucy home, I knew the first step was to feed her out of the frisbee. Next, I began rolling the frisbee across the floor. Lucy would chase after it like a ball. After that, I placed the frisbee in her mouth and took it out. Repeat. Repeat again. Then, we quickly graduated to catching short (one foot) tosses. The final step was teaching Lucy to circle around my legs before retrieving a thrown ball. Lucy learned to circle counter-clockwise because I'm right-handed. I'm not sure the direction matters. But, when she circles my legs, Lucy is placed behind me, so she can track the frisbee as I release it. 

Lucy learned to catch a frisbee in less than two weeks. It was not hard. I think probably she would have learned in less if I hadn't spent so much time rolling the frisbee across the floor, putting the frisbee in her mouth.

"That's for sure, dad." 

Lucy learned to catch a hard plastic, lightweight frisbee from PetSmart. We then moved on to catching 175-gram hard plastic Ultimate frisbees. Don't do this: your dog will catch the frisbee. If your dog is like Lucy, your dog will catch basically anything you throw to her. But, a frisbee that hard and large will hurt your dog's mouth. Lucy often bit her tongue and would come back, smiling, with a slightly bloody, slightly muddy disc in her mouth, ready for another throw. 

Instead, buy the Jawz brand frisbee. These frisbees are great to throw—they're heavier than the cheap, plastic frisbees, but not as heavy as an Ultimate disc. They're smaller in diameter than an ultimate disc, as well. More like a frisbee golf disc in size, but made out of a durable, but soft urethane. We buy the Uglies (cosmetic defects) because they're cheaper. These frisbees are heavier than hard plastic disks, so they fly farther and cut better through any wind. Lucy loves these discs and I'm ashamed I didn't learn of their existence sooner. She lost one of her little front teeth at some point. I'm sure it was on one of these hard plastic frisbees. I'm also sure she hasn't missed it a bit. Or, at least, considers the trade a fair exchange. 

Lucy never learned the command "drop it" very well. I mean, I know she understands what "drop it" means, she just decided that she didn't like it very much. So, early in our friendship, we compromised by me bringing two frisbees, two balls, two somethings to throw and I stopped having to say "drop it". She always wants the one in my hand more than the one in her mouth, so she is more than happy to drop the frisbee at my feet as she rounded my legs, ready for another throw. 

It still seems like magic that I could throw a disc as hard as I could, watch it silhouetted in an orange sky, watch it fade to the left, and watch my dog—small and getting smaller—float across the ground, leap into the air, grab the frisbee with her certain teeth, land, turn, and begin to float back to me. 

Magic. 

Just magic. 

I am going to miss that magic so much. 

*     *     *

One of the hardest aspects of living with Lucy's diagnosis of hemangio sarcoma is the vet's prohibition on any exertion. No hiking. No running. And definitely no frisbee. Lucy's condition is delicate. 

I haven't read too much on hemangio sarcoma. I know it is a blood-born tumor. I know the tumors are on her liver and spleen. I know it's not operable. And, I know that these tumors cause internal bleeding. Ultimately, it will be this bleeding that kills her. Even now, her belly is getting tight and a little more swollen each day with fluid. I have stopped feeding her twice a day and instead feed her smaller portions four times a day. Her belly can't hold as much food because of the internal pressure. The vet made it clear that vigorous activity would likely cause another acute bleed and lead to her demise. So, in this time between diagnosis and death, Lucy can't do the things she most loves doing. 

Eight days before the diagnosis, Lucy, Pugsley, Erin and I went to the middle school down the street from our house and Lucy and I tossed frisbee for 15 or 20 minutes. When I was in law school, Lucy and I would go toss frisbee—nonstop—for an hour and a half. She didn't want to be in the house and I didn't want to be in a law book, so it worked out well for both of us. 

Now, though, we're taking walks. I'm allowed to toss ball to Lucy, gently, in the house. Lucy is really only happy when she's working. It is what she lives for. I have thought in the past that Lucy might actually kill herself with pure exuberance; part of me knows that's how she would want to go. Part of me thinks she'd rather me arrange for in-home euthanasia, take her to the park, toss a bunch of frisbees, and bring her home panting. I don't have the guts to do it. 

*     *     *

This evening, we were walking back from the middle school and a small rabbit bounded across Lucy's path. I did not allow her to give chase; hunting rabbits definitely is "vigorous activity." Lucy has chased many rabbits. Earlier today, in fact, she cornered a rabbit in our backyard. The rabbit was tucked unmoving behind a fencepost, so Lucy was unable to kill it. But, when I called for her to come in she was sitting—belly down, paws forward, intent—on a stakeout. I made her come in. Puglsey went out. He went to within two inches of where the rabbit was hiding, failed to notice the rabbit. Instead, he paused, sniffed, hiked his legs, peed, scampered back up the deck steps, and plopped himself back onto his couch. 

Lucy's lifetime record against rabbits is 2–1,352. For years, I thought that when Lucy took off across a field after a rabbit she was just inviting the rabbits run up the score. Then, on a run in Lexington's Arboretum, Lucy disappeared into the woods, hot on the trail of a rabbit. 

"Here we go again," I thought. 

Lucy's hunt usually meant me waiting around for her, calling her, and, occasionally, having to go find her in the woods. Not this time. 

I kept running and was about 100 yards up a hill when she emerged from the woods, a large, walnut-brown jackrabbit draped from her jaws. As she approached, I realized that I didn't really know what I should do with the rabbit. So, I did nothing. Lucy reluctantly dropped him after I told her to and we left her trophy laying in the grass, his left eye staring up at the blue sky. 

Lucy may have had an atrocious win–loss record against rabbits, but that one victory was all she needed. Word spread fast in the rabbit community, I'm sure, that this dog was an actual threat. This dog, unlike so many other dogs, was for real. 

That was Lucy's first kill. Her second came on August 9, 2012. Lucy and I were out on our nightly trip to Highlands Middle School's field. As Lucy sniffed along the fenceline and ate some grass, I wandered into the field through the hot, dark air. Once I get a little bit away from Lucy, she will generally trot over, figure out where we're heading next, and scout ahead for me. But, last night, as I walked away from Lucy, I saw her dark shadow trotting towards home, not me. I yelled for her and she stopped, took a few steps toward me, and then started walking towards home again. I thought that she was just really, really tired, so I started walking after her. It wasn't until we got to the end of the field and I bent to put hook her leash onto her collar before I saw that Lucy was carrying a small rabbit in her jaws. It was totally dead. She had caught a rabbit and now it was time to go home.

Obviously.

That Lucy caught another rabbit, even just a small one, made me very happy because since we have begun our nightly walks we encounter rabbits every night and every night Lucy wants to give chase. But, she remembers how fast they are. She feels how slow she is. We feel sad.  Getting one last rabbit helped us both feel young again. That we need death to make death feel a little less inevitable, even for a moment, should trouble me more deeply than it does. 

*     *     *

Killing that jackrabbit in Lexington has to be one of the best days in Lucy's life. There were a lot of very good days. Some have become part of McCarter lore and I write them here so we will not forget. 

There was the day we went out to Erin's dad's farm. Lucy really should have lived on a farm. I do feel a bit bad that I was not able to give her that every day, but, one of the benefits of adopting a dog from the pound is that you can look at your dog laying in front of the TV or wandering around in a fenced yard and think to yourself, "She really should be on a farm, but you know what? This beats the pound." 

Erin's dad lives in a valley called "North Fork" in Greenup County where he raises cattle. Greg hopped on a four-wheeler and Erin and I loaded into a Grasshopper, a sort of utility four-wheeler with a payload in the back. We spent the afternoon riding up and down the hills around Greg's farm. Lucy saw her first cow and immediately went into herding mode—hunching down, staying low, unblinking. 

At one of the cattle ponds, Lucy got to retrieve sticks. She swims like an otter. I threw a stick into the middle of the pond. She swam to an area near the center of the concentric ripples made by the stick, but grabbed another stick floating in the water. She turned and began swimming towards shore, her head barely above the water. She was swimming much slower than usual—struggling. A few moments later, Erin and I understood why: a tree trunk surfaced behind Lucy. The stick Lucy had grabbed was clearly a branch near the top of the tree. It took her about two minutes, but she dragged the goddamn tree to shore. She was so pleased with herself. We were so pleased with her. 

When we got back to Greg's house, Lucy and I went to the barn where Greg had stored circular hay bales three high. She and I climbed up and ran around on top of them, hopping from one to another, scrambling in between them. Down below, Erin and her dad surveyed the new calf. As evening settled in, Greg rewarded Lucy by letting her eat a bunch of cattle feed, which I understand is made of molasses and corn an all sorts of other delicious deliciousness. It smells almost like corn whiskey mash. Lucy ate her fill, we thanked Greg for a great day, and Lucy climbed into the back of my station wagon. I turned on the headlights. Lucy's breath smelled like cow feed. My car soon smelled like cow feed. As we turned into downtown Russell, the smell was overpowering. We rolled down the windows. 

A few minutes later, we parked in front of Erin's little house and stumbled through the front door. Erin and I were in the kitchen when we began to smell cattle feed again. I walked into the living room and four neat, perfectly circular, perfectly brown cow patties dotted Erin's white rug. Lucy went out back. And, after I cleaned up the barf in the living room, I went out to my station wagon where two more cow patties rested in the back of the station wagon. Well, that explains the smell. 

Cow feed expands in the stomach, I learned. Lucy had eaten a lot of cow feed. What a legendary day. 

Lucy lives the McCarter creed: anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. This was clear from the first day I met her and she dove into a shallow, putrid pond in my backyard. It became clear to my friends when we canoed in Kentucky's Red River Gorge for my bachelor party. Lucy ran and swam the seven mile stretch, but did so by running down the bank, doubling back, checking on our progress, running down the bank, doubling back, checking our progress, and running back down the bank again. She must have run thirty miles that day. I'm not even kidding. That was the only day in her life that she was tuckered out. She was so tired and sore at the end of that day, that she didn't even hang out by the fire that night to eat burned marshmallows Instead, she curled up next to my suitcase and growled at anyone who came close to her. She was so tired she was defenseless. 

*    *    *

Lucy is my dog and I am her human. We know this. Not long after Erin and I moved to Louisville, I dropped Lucy off at my folks' place on my way to West Virginia for the weekend. When I came back 48 hours later, my dad said, "When you left this morning, Lucy went into my closet and laid down. I couldn't get her to come out and stay with me. Then I realized that your shoes were in there. I picked up your shoes and moved them into the study; she stayed there for the next two days." More recently, this has happened with a pair of jeans and socks. Choosing my smelly socks: what else could a dog do to say, "I'm your dog. You're my human."

Lucy is my dog and I am her human. Lucy is a major character in conversations at the McCarter house. If you don't have pets, or if you have pets but don't vocalize their inner dialogue, you probably stopped reading a long time ago. So, readers who have made it this far will understand that Lucy has a voice. Her voice, for whatever reason, sounds a lot like Napoleon Dynamite.

Losing Lucy will be losing the opportunity to talk through her. Make jokes with her. About her. She's one of the funniest members of our household. She speaks in declarative sentences and, like Napoleon Dynamite, poses naive questions with obvious answers. Those questions are almost statements. 

"Um, guys, do you know the cat is on the counter again

"Are you guys going to eat all of that steak?" 

It is not an accident that much of Lucy's dialogue is composed of questions. Lucy is inquisitive. You don't become a dog that understands complete sentences without being curious about the ways of humans and being a quick study. She learned to "take it nice" in two minutes. She knew "go to your crate" in two seconds. Despite close contact with us for over nine years, I think we are still somewhat of an enigma to her. How could it be any different? We spend most of our time staring at screens. 

*     *     *

Lucy and I have not played as much frisbee since we moved to Louisville. Lucy's life in Louisville has not been what it should have been. She's lived in a house with a too-small yard with a too-high fence and a too-busy dad. 

But, Lucy's hips have also shown more age in recent years. It's hard to take my dog to go play frisbee when I know 

  1. She will go too hard, 
  2. She can't help but go too hard, and 
  3. She will be sore for the rest of the day afterward. 

So, we typically play a combination of frisbee and ball to minimize the amount of time she spends soaring through the air. 

I am desperately thankful we played frisbee on July 10, 2012. We would learn a week later that she had cancer. We didn't know anything was wrong with Lucy on that day except that she was getting old. Still, when you have an old dog, you know that each frisbee session might be her last. Or, at least, you understand that the number of times you'll get to do this together are numbered. Erin and I cherish these times.

*     *     *

As much as Lucy is my dog, she's also Erin's dog. Erin and I have been together for nine years. We started dating just before I got Lucy. There's never been an "us" that didn't also include Lucy. That's not true for any other animal that we own. Her cat, Marvin, died in 2008. Together, we got all of our other pets through happenstance or bad judgment or both. 

It is freaking me out that we are losing a part of "us". Erin thinks Lucy is funny. We will certainly laugh less without her around. 

Lucy was at our engagement. No one else was. We took the video of Lucy catching a frisbee just a few minutes after Erin said "yes" on the top of Max Patch above Hot Springs, North Carolina. As Erin and I hugged, the ring snug on her finger, Lucy rolled in something  very smelly on the side of the hill. She was so pleased with herself. We were not pleased (it would be a long ride back to the cabin), but we were engaged.  

Lucy rolls in things often enough that we now have a "Shower Song" that I sing to her whenever we are taking a shower together. I will not sing it for you, but the words go something like this, depending on what I suspect she rolled in: 

Gonna get clean, clean, clean, 
'Cause you rolled in shit, dog shit, 
Gonna get clean, clean, clean in the shower [in the shower!]
Gonna get clean, clean, clean in the shower. 

She seems to like the "Shower Song". She tolerates it, anyway. She knows her dad is not a poet. 

*     *     *

There are some things, besides showers, Lucy doesn't like:

  • Small children. We have always been nervous with Lucy around small children. I think she lacks the patience to tolerate them. 
  • The mailman. One day, we returned home to find a pane of our sidelight under our mailbox broken. It was clear that Lucy had hit the door with such force as the mailman shuffled up the steps that she had broken the pane; the shards had exploded across the front porch.
  • Cats, rabbits, squirrels. Basically, Lucy regards anything that is outside and covered in fur as something that should ultimately end up in her mouth. Amazingly, she has not killed any of our cats or our little Pug. Somehow, Lucy knows that if it's inside, we like it. This does not include the baby possum that wandered up from our dirt basement in Lexington one night. That was a fiasco. But, it does include Diesel, Jessica's ferret. That Lucy did not kill Diesel will forever puzzle me. 
  • Dharma. For some reason, Lucy has always been suspicious of our tortoise-shell cat, Dharma. I am not sure whether it is because Lucy believes that Dharma is too needy (she is) or because Dharma has six toes. But, if Dharma's in the room, Lucy's got her eye on her. Dharma is up to something. Lucy doesn't know what, but she knows that Dharma cannot be trusted. 
  • Other dogs. Lucy tolerates Pugsley, but other dogs just get in her way. Especially other dogs that try and mess with her while she's trying to work. Nothing is more certain to piss her off than some galumphing lab tries to take a frisbee from her mouth. 
  • Huskies. Lucy particularly can't stand huskies. If she gets near a husky, there's going to be a fight. Before I discovered the existence of this ancient enmity, Lucy fought the largest husky I've ever seen at a dog park in Lexington. It was the first and only time I feared for her life. He stood a full head taller than her and was at least double her weight. This was no play. This was a dogfight. They rolled, snarled, bit, tore. I took off running after them, screamed at them. I don't remember how the fight ended. I'm not sure I didn't kick the husky. I don't think I did, but I can't say I didn't. I yelled at the husky's owner (I'm not a yeller) and Lucy and I left. Huskies. Who unleashed them from their sleds? 
  • Fawning. Lucy loves getting a belly rub. What dog doesn't? But, she doesn't like being fawned upon. She can tell when you're getting sappy and she does not like overwrought emotion. This obviously makes our present predicament a challenge because all Erin and I want to do is love her and pet her. But, she senses our sympathy, feels our pity and rejects it. Now, Lucy's belly is getting bigger, so moving is not as easy as it used to be: she can't just hop up on the couch or hop down from the couch like it's nothing. So, Lucy has to weigh the discomfort that flows from moving away from our fawning and the discomfort of being fawned upon and decide which to suffer. Unfortunately, she often chooses to move. I guess I should be thankful that she still chooses to move. 
  • The vacuum cleaner and lawn mower. I don't know whether there's a scientific study on this, but it seems common enough among dogs that we should, as a race, be able to explain this with science by now. Lucy will nip at the lawnmower's front wheels the *entire* time I am mowing unless I yell at her to "leave it!" Which I usually do after about two minutes of Lucy's maniacal nonsense. 

Looking over this list, it occurs to me that Lucy really doesn't like a lot of things on this earth. Lucy's "circle of trust" is exceedingly small and I have lived my entire time with her on the inside of it. For a being like Dharma, landing—inexplicably—outside the circle meant weathering years of Lucy's suspicious badgering. For a being like me, landing—inexplicably—inside the circle meant years of singleminded devotion. Lucy has exerted every fiber of muscle, every firing of a neuron to knowing me, understanding me, trying to please and protect me. 

*     *     *

Lucy is sleeping on the floor now. Before she got sick, she has always preferred to sleep at my feet in the bed. 

I think she's sleeping in the floor for three reasons: 

  1. She can spread out and lay on her side more easily. This seems to be the most comfortable way for her to sleep.
  2. It's hard for her to jump in the bed and especially hard to negotiate getting out of bed. She refuses to use the carpeted steps I purchased to help with that. I think she considers the steps a physical manifestation of my fawning. 
  3. It is cooler on the floor than in the bed and it has been Kentucky's hottest summer since, well, whenever Kentucky's geological history involved massive lava flows. 

So, I have begun sleeping on the floor now, too. In 2002–2003, I lived in D.C. in a room too small for a bed; I'm pretty good at it. Not long after we started sleeping on the floor, I woke up in the middle of the night and Lucy had moved and curled up right next to me. The moment was so sweet for me; Lucy had never moved closer to me in the middle of the night. She will either start and stay at my feet or start there and settle down in her bed on the floor at some point. I started rubbing her belly and almost immediately she got perturbed with my fussiness and moved away. 

It was totally worth it. 

*     *     *

I am getting better at living with a sick dog and living with my grief. I am crying less. I can talk with my vet without crying. Much. I am starting to anticipate Lucy's changing tastes and changing appetite. It breaks my heart that she no longer likes peanut butter. This was always an easy pleasure (and an easy way to give medicine). I keep boiled chicken on hand, but have migrated to the Merrick brand of canned dog foods. Merrick meals offer great varieties of meats and veggies. If it's not a "Wild Buffalo Grill" day, it can be a "New Zealand Summer" day. If it's a "Mediterranean Banquet" day, Lucy is eating lamb, brown rice, chick peas, spinach, and golden delicious apples. I am considering keeping a few cans for myself in the McCarter bomb shelter.   

It is so good to be able to "spoil" Lucy with these delicacies. 

More than anything, I don't want Lucy to suffer. I especially don't want her to know that she is dying. We are giving her steroids to hopefully slow the tumor growth and Pepsid to suppress nausea. After the diagnosis, we overspoiled Lucy and she got diarrhea bad enough that we went to the animal emergency room on Sunday morning. We thought it might be the end. The vet tested her red blood cell count. He assured us she was stable, prescribed an anti-diarrheal paste, and sent us home. Before we left, he explained how common hemangio sarcoma is. He explained how it worked and explained that of all the ways for dogs to go, this one was one of the best. It is the most similar to just falling asleep. 

He was very kind. 

*     *     *

Lucy lays on her side a lot now. Like I said, it's the position she feels most comfortable in, I think. She is resting next to me right now (Friday night, August 4) after a late evening walk. "Hey buddy," I say to her. She looks up and thumps her tail a few times for me. These days, that tail thump makes my heart leap for joy and crushes me at the same time.

I just want that tail to keep thumping. 

Because we are not allowed to do anything else, Lucy and I are going on walks. We slap on her prong collar and the retractable leash and set out in the early morning or late at night; we prowl the alleys around our house. She stops often to pee. She stops often to smell. We take our time. This is not common. We are usually in a hurry to get to the middle school to play frisbee. Lucy is usually trying to stay in front of Pugsley. (She cannot not be in front. Erin used to mess with Lucy and run just barely in front of her on runs. It drove Lucy nuts.)

It was a full moon last night. It was almost full, and just as orange-yellow, tonight. Last night, we walked to the middle school and laid down in the grass. We hadn't done that for a long time.

We were still. We thought deep thoughts. I have not been myself. 

*     *     *

Besides walks, here are the things we are enjoying these days: 

  • Squirrels. Stuffed squirrels. Lucy is one of these dogs that can gut a stuffed animal in about two and a half minutes. She loves these squirrels. Our buddy Jessica first got her a set of three (they come with their own trunk!) when we were living together in Lexington. The idea is that you put the squirrels inside the hollow of the stuffed trunk and the dog noses her way into the trunk and pulls out the squirrels. Lucy loves this shit. I've bought her three—one every Friday—since we got the bad news. At $13 each, I suspect we'll keep getting one each Friday as long as Lucy seems to continue destroying them. 
  • Chicken Broth Ice. As I mentioned above, I have been boiling chickens for Lucy. I take the leftover stock and pour it into ice cube trays. Lucy will not come running into the kitchen if she hears the freezer door open. But, if she hears the freezer door open and then hears me rustling around with a plastic bag in the freezer...well, let's just say that even if I wasn't fooling with the plastic bag that contains all the frozen chicken stock, Lucy's going to get a frozen treat every time she comes into the kitchen and appears interested in a frozen treat. Pugsley has also learned how to eat chicken broth ice, even with his tiny little Tic-Tac™ teeth. This whole deal has not been too bad for the Pug. He is living in the penumbra of Lucy's spoilage: he's getting more treats than he normally would because she's getting more treats.
  • Earthing Mat. When I posted about Lucy's cancer on Facebook, many, many people responded with love and support. Lucy has met a lot of people in 9 years; she goes on almost every road trip with us. So, a lot of people know how awesome she is. One of my friends recommended an earthing mat. He said that his cat had died of cancer earlier this spring and that the earthing mat had been a comfort to them both as the disease progressed. I don't know too much about how it works—something about ions and free radicals—or even whether it works, but I ordered one. This is what happens when your dog is sick: you just buy it. The mat arrived a few days later. I plugged it in and put it in Lucy's favorite spot: just in front of the coffee table. She seems to enjoy laying on it, or, at least, she doesn't mind laying on it. Since I put it in her favorite spot, I can't actually tell whether she prefers laying on it or whether it is having any therapeutic effect. But, I feel better having ordered it. I would rather be the guy who spends some money on some untested, hippie technology than the one who says, "No way I'm wasting my money on that." What if it does provide some comfort? I'd rather be gullible than a cynic.
  • Yunnan baiyao. Along those same lines, I have ordered (via Amazon's overnight delivery) a Chinese herbal remedy called "yunnan baiyao" to help slow the internal bleeding from Lucy's tumors. The vet who is serving as our backup euthanist originally suggested that I pursue Eastern palliative care and since then I have been working for a week to find a vet who will either a) prescribe this remedy or b) provide me with the name of the concoction so I can just order it on the internet. I finally found one today who was willing to speak the name of the remedy. I'm not trying to be dramatic. I spoke to two vets prior to this one who said, "I don't have it.""What is it?" "A Chinese herbal blend." "Yes, but what is it called?" "You should call Dr. ____." It was infuriating. It should arrive tomorrow. I hope it provides Lucy with some relief. The reviews on Amazon are glowing. At minimum, securing it will provide me with some comfort that I did all I could for her. So much of what we're going through right now seems to be more about my need to reassure myself that I'm doing all I can. 

*     *     *

I am trying to tell whether Lucy feels rotten. Well, it is clear that she feels rotten: she has a hard time going up and down stairs with her additional weight and she has a hard time getting comfortable when she's laying down. What I'm trying to tell is whether she knows she is dying. I've spent a lot of time looking into Lucy's eyes in the last four weeks and I don't see that knowledge in them. 

But it could just be that Lucy's eyes are a kind of Rorschach test. I could just be seeing just what I want to see. I desperately want her to not understand. I want her to feel slower, feel bloated, but not know that she will soon be the rabbit in the dog's mouth. When the euthanist comes, I want to look at her for the last time without her also knowing it will be the last time. That's purely selfish. That's just me feeling pretty damn confident I couldn't bear that. I am crying as I type this. I look over and Lucy is looking at me. 

"Hi!" I say, smiling through the tears. 

Thump. Thump. Thump. 

Lucy's tail just keeps beating. This gives me hope. We go for a walk. 

If Lucy knows, she's not telling me she knows. Because I'm her human. She knows that I know that I couldn't bear it if she knew. 

*     *     *

I am afraid we are getting close to the end. It's August 10 and Lucy hasn't eaten much today. Her belly is quite large. I was only able to give her medicine this morning by hiding it in peanut butter (which she won't eat) and plastering that to the side of a Rocko's Rewards treat that I bought from Lenore at the Douglass Loop Farmers Market. I will say this: Lucy turned down boiled chicken, she turned down cubed buffalo. She cannot resist a Rocko's treat, even if it is partially covered in nasty, mediciny peanut butter. I'm not sure what Lenore's doing to those treats, but they are a gift. Being able to find some vehicle with which to deliver to your dog a pain-relieving pill is a true comfort. 

*     *     *

The end came on August 12, 2012. When I got home from church, Lucy did not greet me at the door. She was laying next to my chair in the living room. Her tail was thump, thump, thumping away, but she was not moving. Her belly was so tight. Tight like the time she ate too much cattle feed. Tight like the time she ate a loaf of multigrain bread. 

Thump, thump, thump. 

It was time. 

I called the vet. I called Erin. She had to drive back from Lexington. While we waited for their arrivals, Lucy and I listened to music. She let me pet her, fuss over her, cry over her. 

She drank some water. 

It was time. 

The vet, Dr. Lauralee Rubsch, was a pro. Lucy's departure went as well as this sort of thing can go. 

We petted her, cried over her, kissed on her. We told her what a good dog she was. How we loved her desperately, forever. 

It was time. 

"Go be free," Dr. Rubsch whispered. Perfect words.

Lucy was gone. Somewhere, she was running. The air around her was filled with the smell of fresh pine and wild game. Her heart was thumping against her sturdy chest.

Somehow, my heart kept thumping. 

The night before Lucy died, she and I walked over to the field at Highlands Middle School. Lucy did not run. She didn't stray far from me. We laid down in the field and looked up. That night was the height of the Perseids, the annual meteor shower bonanza. 

We rested. 

We watched the cold, ancient stones burn across the sky. 

We are dust, heat, and light. All of us. 

Of the three, Lucy was mostly light. 


The Best Damn Blog About Nail Polish You Never Read

by Ben Carter


A lot of people have been excited for Waterlily – many compared it to Chanel’s famous Jade, since it has a slight shimmer. I don’t have Jade, but comparisons seem to show that although the two are fairly close, Waterlily is a more yellow, leafy light green than Jade’s cooler mint tones. Waterlily is a pretty and wearable green – the yellow tones make it soft and it’s not too stark. The formula is nice and only took me two coats for opacity.


I have a friend who is really into fingernail polish. Whenever we meet her and her husband for dinner, she[1] is wearing a new coat. It’s not something she talks about unless we comment on how great it looks; it always looks great.

During a lull in the conversation at a recent dinner, our friend announced, “So, I have a blog.” Turns out, by “have a blog” she meant she has a well-trafficked blog devoted exclusively to nail polish. She has been reviewing high-end and offbeat polishes for years at her blog, Lacquer Wear.

Maybe you need to know her to appreciate the shock of the news, but know that she is not the stereotypical blogger. And, I guess, that is one of the points of this: in 2011, there is no stereotypical blogger. When I began blogging in 2003, the world of blogging was dominated by guys like me: nerdy dudes in their early 20s.

Now, anyone can have a blog. This is amazing.

The other thing that’s not stereotypical about my friend as a blogger is that bloggers, almost by definition, are self-promoters. (How many people do you know that have started a blog, announced it to the world and then wrote one–maybe two–more posts past the initial promotional post?) It is inconceivable to me that someone would blog for years without telling her friend–me–about it. I am trying not to take it personally.

But, I want to get back to the “anyone can have a blog” thing.

I have another friend who is on the Paleo diet. His blog, Eatin’ Thangs, is nothing but pictures of stuff he’s eaten.

A third friend cares deeply about the role of the church in a broken (and getting broker) world. He writes about this and current events at his blog, at his church’s blog, and at a community blog he administers called [D]mergent.

A fourth friend writes about music under the name Kenny Bloggins. I read his site, The Decibel Tolls, to find new music, yes, but primarily to be blown away by his writing. Kenny Bloggins can pwn a sentence.[2]

Strictly speaking, I don’t really care about fingernail polish, but Lacquer Wear is in my RSS reader, NetNewsWire, and when a new post shows up, I read it. It is written with an enthusiasts’ enthusiasm and a maven’s perception. My friend carefully photographs each of the swatches in different lights that reflect that polish’s versatility (or consistency). She describes the polish’s application and feel. If a polish disappoints, she says so.

As far as I know, she is not paid for her work, nor does she ever expect to be paid. It is amateur hour on the internet and we couldn’t be luckier. Enough has already been said about the fact that we all own a printing press now, about the fact that people are doing work for free that journalists used to be paid for, about the fact that bloggers are carving out micro-niches of expertise.[3] We do not need to replow that terrain.

Instead, I just want to marvel for a moment about how awesome all of this is. I have a friend. Who blogs. About nail polish.

Awesome.

In 2011, a blog can be anything you want it to be: a journal, a collection of nail polish reviews, a photo diary of the warm things that filled your belly as the earth spun through dark and empty space. You can write essays that change the way people think about church, about their responsibilities to each other. You can rant about your favorite (or least favorite) sports team. You can have a travelogue.

Seriously: anything.

I say this for two reasons:

1) You have no excuses not to produce. 2) The world needs your story.

When I read my friend’s nail polish blog, I’m not just reading a review of Dior’s most recent line of fall polishes. I’m reminded that there is someone else out there who cares enough to write it down, who has the courage to write it down, memorialize it. It, whatever “it” is, matters. In this case, the “it” is nail polish and it matters enough to my friend to take pleasure in the creating and then send her words off in the world without much concern as to how they will fare. Ultimately, the piece’s fate doesn’t matter. She’s already done the important work, the hard work: sitting down and writing with the conviction that what she had to say matters.

So, I’ll continue to read a blog about nail polish. Because it’s well-written with obvious affection for the subject.

And because it’s not really about nail polish.


  1. “She” prefers to remain anonymous.  ↩

  2. Since writing this post over Christmas break and publishing it at the end of January, Kenny Bloggins has announced he is going to stop blogging at The Decibel Tolls. BUT, he is starting a more general-purpose blog called Distonal. It is going to be dope. I’m really excited to see what he does with the new space.  ↩

  3. Indeed, having a blog about nail polish seems recklessly unfocused in 2011. She should really have a blog about green nail polish or nail polishes imported from the Czech Republic.  ↩


...in which I explain why the sycamore is my favorite tree

by Ben Carter


Whenever people ask me, “Ben, what’s your favorite tree?”[1] I always respond without hesitation: “Sycamore.”[2] I’m not really sure why, which is, of course, why we write.

First, there’s the sound of the name. Now, we English speakers have some good-sounding tree names in our arsenal. The neighborly Maple. The broad Oak. The sturdy and trustworthy Poplar. The playful Cherry. But, sycamore? Come on. That’s the best. It begins tight and focused and then spreads out across a delta in its final syllables. Just the sound implies so much about the tree itself. More on that in a second. I am still on how good the name sounds and how much fun it is to say.

Saying “sycamore” is like speaking jazz. It’s syncopated in just the right way. I wish people would ask me what my favorite tree was more often, just so I could say “sycamore” over and over again throughout the day. It’s really my only shot at having rhythm.

And, speaking of rhythm, let’s not forget to mention that the sycamore is one of those elite tree names with three syllables. Sycamore. Sassafras.[3] Hickory. The people who named these trees recognized that they deserved the time and attention three syllables required. These trees are not so common or prosaic as to need a short, one-syllable name. You know the trees: the pine, the spruce, the ash. No, these trees, wow!, deserve three.

Writers have have scientifically and undeniably proven that things grouped in threes are inherently more awesome than groups of lesser or more items. Designers know that store displays should group items in threes whenever possible. The best gods are the ones that are three-in-one. Just like the best unalienable rights.

The three-syllabled “sycamore” is irresistible. You should just give up and start loving it now while you think it’s still your choice.

The sycamore lives next to creeks and streams. It stands next to lakes and at the edge of swamps. It is comfortable in the tight, intimate spaces of a creek bed, but is also flourishes near broad expanses of open space. It has emotional range. As its name implies, it’s flexible. It can live in the “syc”, the “a”, or the “more”.

The sycamore also pioneers in places humans have destroyed: old fields and strip mines. When humans have used up a place, moved on, sycamores are among the first trees to return and begin the long work of restoration. The sycamore is a hopeful tree.[4] It plans for generations.

I love the sycamore in part because I love the spaces it inhabits. I prefer a river bank to a mountaintop. While the expanse of a mountaintop awes, awe is not comfortable. It’s not an easy emotion. A creek bed is a good place to return to reflect on an experience of awe. And, the sycamore will be there when you get back. The walls of a creek bed insulate, comfort. They allow me to focus on what’s right in front of me because what’s right in front of me is all I can see. I can sit under a sycamore and find peace. One could do worse than be buried under a sycamore.

I love the sycamore is because it is so easy to identify. After saying such profound and scientifically-verifiable things like “the sycamore is a hopeful tree,” you’re probably thinking I’m some sort of expert on trees. The truth is I don’t know squat about trees. So, I appreciate the sycamore for being so immediately and obviously a sycamore. I love that when I’m in a canoe on a lake, I can expect to look across the water and see the white and brown mottled bark of a sycamore. I feel like I know something about the world when I’m driving down the interstate and spot a sycamore next to a passing stream, it’s white branches immediately comprehendible.

The first old-growth tree I ever saw was a sycamore. In Fall Creek Falls State Park in middle Tennessee. The walls surrounding Fall Creek were so steep, loggers could never figure out how to get the trees out, so they moved on. They left behind massive sycamores, towering hemlocks, deep shade. Old growth sycamores are other-worldly; walking the creekbeds at Fall Creek Falls is like finding yourself in the middle of a Star Wars set. Sycamores just grow to an impossible girth and overlook the rushing water with the dignity of boulders.

The sycamore’s leaves are dense, hearty. You could make a soup out of them. You could write on them, bind them up, make a book out of sycamore pages that would last a thousand years. In the fall, walk under a sycamore and you will learn that the sycamore’s leaves are substantial even in death. They are thick, tough, undeniable. They endure boots.

Everything will eventually fade, even a sycamore’s leaves, its massive, beautiful trunk, the fundamental creek. But, for a season, we can say, “Here stands a giant.”

I knew it and loved it.


  1. Because, as you know, people are always asking each other this question. Basically every day I have someone–friend or stranger–ask me about my favorite tree, or fossil, or dinosaur, or time of day or sedimentary rock. It’s like people don’t know that T.V. exists. (By the way, for “time of day” the answer is: It’s that moment, not every day, when the sun has set for so long that all color is about to fade from the sky and a faint hint of green, almost as if by mistake, appears in the sky.)

     ↩
  2. Because the name “sycamore” has been used to refer to a lot of different kinds of trees over the years, I should be specific, literally, and say the species I love is platanus occidentalis.

     ↩
  3. God, the sassafras really has a lot to recommend it. I would respect anyone who said their favorite tree was the sassafras. The name is great: three syllables, fun to say, cool, rock-splitting etymology. The tree is fun to identify, and you can make cool stuff from it. Like tea. And root beer.

     ↩
  4. Look, I grew up on the Transcendentalists. I am not going to refrain from anthropomorhizing things and drawing spiritual analogies from nature. It’s what I do.

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Showing Up

by Ben Carter


 

 

At work, I feel like a fraud. Five years after passing the bar, the civil justice process is still daunting, and each decision–no matter how minor–seems fraught with peril. Should I call or should I email? What if they ask a question I don’t know the answer to? Do I need to comply with this request for production of documents?

This is why jobs are awesome: they make us do things that terrify us. I swear, if I didn’t have a mortgage payment and too many animals to feed, I would not get anything accomplished. The only reason I’m going to build up any competency and expertise as a lawyer is because I have to. I have to show up every day. I have to take the depostion. I have to do the research and write the brief. I have to negotiate and settle my client’s claim. I have to go to trial.

Look, I would love to be the guy who said, “I don’t have to go to work, I get to.” “Every day is a joy.” And, to a large extent, that’s true. I have been very, very fortunate to have only law jobs that I thought were important jobs, worthy of my time and attention. They were fun–interesting, not drudgetastic–and I got to work with really, really smart people.

But, those jobs were also terrifying. More often than not, I had no idea what I was doing.

I had to do it.

I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to run away. I wanted to scream that I didn’t pay attention in law school, that I’m really not as smart as you think I am, that I shouldn’t be trusted with X1.

If I didn’t have to show up every day, I wouldn’t. I would seek the comfort of things I know I’m good at: laundry and petting animals.

I think God understands this about us. I think God knows that if we didn’t have to work, we probably wouldn’t ever be worth a damn. 2

Work is showing up every day.

If you want to get good at something, it has to be your job. You have to do it every day. Have to.

If I got to wait around for inspiration and expertise and confidence… Well, I guess that’s what purgatory must feel like.

I think this is what Wendell Berry’s character, Jack Beechum, meant when he said “If you’re not in debt, you’ll never be worth anything” in The Memory of Old Jack. 3 He meant that we are weak. We are fearful; and the only way we’re going to do something–something amazing, something worthwhile, something that risks failure–is if we have to.

In some ways, I think our challenge is figuring out ways to make what we want to do well what we have to do every day. Some feel-good thinkers will give you the exact opposite career advice: Find a job you want to go to every day. Follow your bliss. That’s fru-fru hogwash.

You know where my bliss leads me? To a living room filled with laundry that needs to be folded and a big TV broadcasting the NFL.

In retrospect, I think this is one of my best skills: finding work that scares the crap out of me. Deep down, when I am most honest with myself I will admit: I want to become a great attorney. That only happens if I go to work every day and risk failure. I have learned that expertise is not magic. It’s showing up and risking failure. Again and again and again.

It’s not pleasant, it’s terrifying.

It’s the only way.

It’s not what I want to do, it’s what I have to do.

Every day is a new day. To fall on my face.

This is how you get good. 


  1. Where “X” is an opinion on the constitutionality of Kentucky’s educational system, a reckless driving trial of a Palauan cement truck driver, negotiating a plea deal for a Bangladeshi (falsely) accused of receiving stolen property so that he could remain in Palau rather than face deportation, a constitutional challenge to Palau’s prison conditions, a multi-agency, county-wide response to the foreclosure crisis, a legal brief in a multimillion dollar suit alleging negligence on the part of Kentucky’s largest law firm, a presentation about foreclosure defense to 250 skeptical attorneys. ↩

  2. This phrasing is fraught with potential misunderstanding. I am not saying that our worth in God’s eyes is tied to the work we do on Earth. I think God has made it abundantly clear that our worth is our worth, no matter what. Whether we like it or not. Further, the phrase “worth a damn” is not meant to imply that God finds inaction or laziness damn-worthy. Rather, all of this is to say that my utility to others on this Earth, my ability to seek justice for them in our civil justice system, is directly related to being compelled to show up every day whether I want to or not.  ↩

  3. Not an exact quote. If you know the real quote or can find it, please use the “Contact” page to help me correct this. ↩


Fiddling

by Ben Carter


I will do almost anything to avoid writing. Here are a few things I do to avoid writing:

  1. Scoop cat poop.
  2. Organize the pantry.
  3. Go for a run.
  4. Call somebody.
  5. Watch TV.
  6. Sweep.
  7. Vacuum.
  8. Mow the yard.

But, recently I have stripped all that away by waking up early and making time to only write. Yet, sometimes I find myself still not writing. Here are the things I will do in front of my computer to avoid writing.

  1. Explore different blogging platforms.
  2. Explore potential functionality on my own site.
  3. Add or subtract current functionality from my site.
  4. Check and see if anyone talked about my last essay on Facebook or Twitter.
  5. See if Apple’s mail.app is still sub-par (yes), and see if there are any other mail clients that I might use instead of the Gmail web interface (there aren’t).[1]
  6. See if Safari is still slower than Chrome. (Yes.)
  7. Answer email. Admittedly, this is one of the better things I could do in front of a computer instead of write, but this makes it even more insidious because it is so much easier to convince myself to write emails not essays. [2]
  8. I’m going to tell myself that working on links and photos for already-written essays is just as important as moving the cursor.
  9. Pay bills.
  10. Read my RSS feeds.
  11. Update my OmniFocus lists.
  12. Update my hours and mileage.
  13. Explore new text editors.

Just now, between typing #4 and #5 of the “things I do at the computer to avoid writing” list, I literally spent 15 minutes researching Disqus and trying to decide if I wanted to replace the commenting functionality native to Squarespace with Disqus. That’s right: while writing about what I do to avoid writing I did the exact thing I know I’m inclined to do to avoid writing.

I spent most of my evening yesterday moving BlueGrassRoots from Tumblr to Squarespace. Yesterday morning, I spent most of my writing time trying to add Google Analytics site monitoring to the Tumblr site I abandoned 12 hours later.

This is what I do: I fiddle. Since starting this site, I have worked with no fewer than six text editors (Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, nvAlt, Byword, WriteRoom, TextEdit) and taught myself a (very easy) new syntax, MultiMarkdown, for writing on the web. All of this exploration has been fun and it actually helps me get stuff done quicker, more elegantly, and with less friction. But, that’s what’s so dangerous about it. Because it helps me write, I can convince myself that it’s time well spent.

It isn’t.

I am very good at telling myself that all of the stuff that supports the success of my writing is just as important as writing.

It isn’t.

Things that are important:

  1. I write when I’m supposed to write.
  2. I keep pushing the cursor across the screen.
  3. I continue to try to say true things, especially when I’m scared to.

Merlin Mann (from whom I am basically plagiarizing [3] this entire essay), says that you are always exercising a muscle. Whatever you do, you’re either practicing #winning or practicing losing. When I fiddle, I’m exercising my fiddling muscle. I’m exercising my Muscle of Failure.

That’s what’s so dangerous about all of this. It’s not that I just burned 15 minutes of my morning writing time looking at commenting platforms for my stupid blog. It’s that practiced burning 15 minutes of my writing time on something inconsequential. That I did it this morning makes it that much easier and more likely that I will do it tomorrow.

Pretty soon, I’m not a writer but a fiddler.

This is why I have an entire document devoted to a completely unpublishable inquiry into the many and various ways that I suck. I figure, if I can’t think of anything else to write about, well, there’s always that. I’m sort of the world’s preeminent authority on that topic. Though, I’m sure Erin could also write a pretty compelling piece on the subject, as well.

When I’m writing about how much I suck, at least I’m exercising my writing muscles, not my fiddling muscles. This is more important that I can tell you.

Look, we all have things that we wished we did. Play the guitar more, spend more time with the kids, budget, go to church, call Mom, smoke more cigarettes with friends[4], take more photographs, get organized. These are all worthy goals. But, they’re also the sort of things we can carry around guiltily for the next three years. They’re the sort of things that can make us feel like out-of-control failures with no agency in our own lives.

When we feel like we should be doing something but do not act on it, we are exercising the inaction muscle. We are practicing feeling awful about ourselves and our abilities.

It’s like Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Here’s my advice (to myself): If you can’t take action on something now (whether it’s because you’re afraid, overcommitted, uninterested, whatever), put it on your calendar to review two, six, twelve months from now: “See if there’s space in my life to pick up the guitar again.” Then, move on. Continuing to feel like you should do something is making it harder to ever take action on that thing. Seriously, let it go. If you don’t, that weight is going to grow in your hands and drag you to the bottom of the deepest ocean. Your lungs will burn and the only light will come from a fish that will eat you alive.

Let it go.

Practice doing, not wishing. Practice moving the cursor to the right. Even when you’re scared. Especially when you’re scared.


  1. Srsly, people, Google has had the “Send and Archive” button for years now. It can’t be that hard. Make it so.  ↩

  2. Writing emails early, beyond clearing out your inbox, has the added benefit of putting a timestamp on the email that says to the recipient, “Seriously, what are you doing with your life?” Wait, maybe when people get emails from me at 4:30 in the morning they are thinking, “Man, what is he doing with his life?” I’m going to have to think about this.  ↩

  3. I’m not even really kidding about this. There is a good chance that every single sentence in here is a direct quote from something he said somewhere.  ↩

  4. Note to self: those days are behind you, Ben, and they’re not coming back.  ↩