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It's Nelly's World

Good, Dog

alec vanderboom

And I say unto you: Yea, verily, there is no god!

Certainly, if there was one, in all his millions of years of existence, in all his marvelous powers, wouldn't he have slipped at least once and left some concrete evidence somewhere on this planet? I know he's supposed to be omnipotent and all, but it is also said that he made humans in his own image. Draw your own conclusion.

There is biology, behaviorism, and Darwin, and they make miracles enough for me.

So you will be left to wonder why, in the past five months, I have had recourse to the following: various horoscopes; Guatemalan trouble dolls; the 8 Ball; tarot cards; Chinese fortune sticks. If I had a Ouija board, I probably would have used that too: it worked at grade-school slumber parties, where we would scare ourselves into idiocy by levitating one of our companions in her Lanz nightgown using only two fingers. (Well, yes, two fingers each of eighteen hands, but . . . ) I have a milagros for a broken heart taped to my front door. Every night I burn a Lucky Candle ("alleged fast luck 7-11," as the legal counsel puts it). And then there's that business with a phoenix.

I prize logic. I never said I manifested it.

I have also made use of the services of three different psychotherapists (and sleeping pills, antianxiety drugs, and maybe a touch more than a soupcon of pinot noir, but let's not go there, shall we?), which is perhaps just voodoo of another sort. Yet the most useful of all, in helping move me down the road toward something that seems mystical but in fact is as tangible as the wind that comes out of the north in winter and, meeting the cells at the bottom of your lungs, wakes you up to a new truth, the full slap of reality, is talking with friends. Speaking of mystical, there are some people who seem to suddenly appear in your way just to give you the map through the rocky high pass in a blizzard. When you come out the other side, valley blooming before your feet, you marvel that this must be the result of some power in the universe who knew you needed exactly this person at exactly this time, their uncanny ability to cut to the heart and then to the bone. (And save you all that money at the shrink's.) But I know that my sagacious and giving friends, some who newly glimmer in importance to my ability to get through a day or a crisis, whichever comes first, are not the products of the clouds, angelic though they may be (I'm speaking of you, A. And you, J. And you, S. Seraphim all.). They are instead like the new word you learn, then suddenly see everywhere. It was never there before! Ah, but it was: it was simply not seen. So, with the truth. So, with what you have hidden from yourself for many long years, but now, in a flash of internal light, see.

Thus all those divinations are really a format in which to talk to yourself. My first true love and I used to throw the I Ching all the time, and lo and behold if it didn't tell us the most precise, breathtakingly true answers to the puzzles that faced us. (And he was a Yale student of comparative literature; not exactly the kind of vacant moron who believes he will necessarily hit the lottery if he just goes to 7-Eleven often enough; um, like me, maybe, that kind of moron?) What the I Ching told us, those coins on the floor, was how to Read Into. Exegesis. If the answer did not already reside within us, we would not have been able to find it in some words of ancient Chinese first set down three thousand years ago. Yet here it is! The answer to "Should I write my master's thesis on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?"

The I Ching is, after all, subtitled "The Book of Changes." Everything I need to know about living can be rephrased everything I need to know about changing.

I want to be better. I want to be a good person. Oh, gosh, I sound pathetic, don't I? I sound like the chirpy Christian columnist in the Kingston Freeman, which is the most shocking revelation I think I've ever had.

But it can't be helped now. In order to be a good person, one must first and last be a kind person. Of course, you don't go around prattling about this in a public forum; who are you, Christ or someone?

Anyway, the foundation of kindness is to turn the other cheek. Meet anger with kindness. Meet wrongdoing with kindness. Meet hostility with kindness. Meet cruelty with kindness. I'm not at all Jesus-like, but Christ, I want to try.

How did I figure this? Maybe it came to me in a dream. Probably courtesy of those trouble dolls under my pillow.

When Mercy used to jump on the counter and "steal" our food (Look, Dick! See the loaded terminology, Jane!), onlookers would say, "Oh, what a bad dog!" Polly the Original Great Trainer taught me to respond, "She's not bad. In fact, she's quite excellent at what she does. Never misses a crumb." Counter surfing is one of the most difficult behaviors to dislodge, because it is built on an intermittent reinforcement schedule (and delicious reinforcers at that), the most powerful insurance that an installed behavior will continue: Sometimes there's pot roast up there, and sometimes there's nothing; so I gotta keep trying, 'cause I just love pot roast.

You know who else is on an intermittent reinforcement schedule? All of us, when we sit in front of our e-mail programs, hitting "Receive/Send" like a banana-addled monkey. Sometimes, just often enough, it rewards us with a funny or productive or much-awaited message. Hey, next time I'm going to be even more persistent with that button.

Dogs are good at what they do. Are they therefore good? When Nelly kills a rabbit, which has happened just often enough for her to be extremely persistent ("persistence furthers") when she gets around the brier patch, is she a bad dog, for killing a creature she does not need to kill (although you should ask her biology if she "needs" to kill or not), and one moreover that already has a hard enough life, what with the coyotes and foxes and hawks and SUVs? I have often been amused by an owner's insistence they have such a good dog, because said dog will pass by a coffee table filled with cheese and crackers and not avail himself of the food he presumably knows does not belong to him. (And if you can explain the mechanism whereby that knowledge was gained, you win the Nobel.) This does not strike me as good; this seems rather to indicate the dog is aberrant. Or just hasn't checked the coffee table often enough. Secretly, I wonder if such dogs aren't actually intellectually sub-par; I have a grain of a theory that superior food thievery skills in a dog correlate with extraordinary intelligence.

Nelly, by the way, is polishing her skills in this department, and if she was tall enough to counter-surf, might well be gunning for Mercy's laurels.

As long as I'm admitting unsavory details about myself--and wanting to be like Jesus is as unsavory as they come, don't you think--I will cop to a belief in karma. And sorry, I still snicker impolitely, and unchristianly, at people who believe in multiple lives (though I keep having dreams about being poled down the Nile in this beautiful gilded barge . . .). No, I know I only get this one chance. And that chance happens to be fleeing merrily away. If I'm really lucky I may only have another thirty years--peanuts!--in existence to do all the things I want to do. Do you ever do that, count your remaining years? If you're over fifty, you can give yourself a right good scare and the need to re-up your Prozac. It is justifiably depressing: time already goes like a barn swallow flies, and then to think of it as far fewer years than you've already lived? Because it is only blackness for you once they lower you into the ground, or load you into that furnace--though, hey, now you can look into the option of green burial. (They still won't let me do what I've long wanted, to be tossed deep in the woods as dinner for the coyotes. The good coyotes.)

I mean karma in this life. One who gives, always receives. Always. By offering only kindness, ever kindness, even to those who would hurt you, how can you go wrong? It's the only foolproof way to live. Think about it for a sec. Perseverence furthers. Eh, Nelly? Eh, Dr. Skinner?