Saturday, April 30, 2016

I will judge a book by its cover...a book review of sorts

Two admissions…

First, I admit I will judge a book by its cover. “Dog Medicine” by Julie Barton had me at the full face photo of a beautiful Golden Retriever named Bunker. I wasn’t familiar with this writer or the story she told, but when the book popped up on my Amazon list of suggested books, I quickly hit “purchase” for my Kindle app.

Second, I admit I later bought a second copy of the book in hardback. The Kindle version is hard to mark up, scribble on and turn down pages. The highest compliment I can pay a book is to buy the hardback to keep, to mark up, to turn down page corners, to return to read the passages that mean something to me.

The hardback of “Dog Medicine” now sits by my bed with dog-eared pages, yellow highlighting of "turns of phrases," and sticky notes scribbled with ideas that I want to write about at some point.

I read this beautifully written memoir one cold rainy week-end with my big goofy golden retriever tucked up under my feet. She doesn't judge me when I laugh, cry or giggle about the book I'm reading. She doesn't mind if I read a passage out loud several times just because I like the cadence of the sentence or the unique placement of a word. She's my “dog medicine,” so I knew I’d like this book.

Once I started reading, the book seemed to be the story of the author’s struggle with depression. My interest waned a bit at first…I wanted to read about the dog. But it didn’t take many more pages to understand that, while depression is certainly a major player in the book, it is by no means is it the main character.

The real story here is about resilience, acceptance, trust, connection and belief in something bigger. And all of that comes alive through Bunker.

Bunker doesn’t bound into the writer’s life until about a third of the way into the book, yet he’s already there from the beginning. And not just because his picture is on the cover. It’s because Barton tracks her life experiences in the months leading up to Bunker’s arrival alongside his early puppy life before she ever knew she needed a puppy.

This is the story of Barton’s depression and how this dog saved her life 20 years ago. From the first chapter, she leads you through her struggle with enough of an objective perspective that not only makes you feel comfortable sharing her journey but also allows you to fully absorb what she was experiencing.

She doesn't turn you off with self-pity or excuses. She makes it OK to feel with her as she describes her collapse on the floor of her New York apartment surrounded by dust bunnies and weeks' worth of dirty dishes. You are in the car with her and her mother on their journey back home to Ohio from New York. You cry with her as she describes sibling abuse in her early life. You delight in the moment when she decides maybe a puppy could bring some meaning to her life.

Anyone who has loved a dog will find many connections to personal experience in this book. One of my favorites is Barton's "ah ha" moment when Bunker had been with her only a matter of days. Despite the confidence she'd quickly gained in caring for her puppy, she felt the blackness of depression returning.

Crumpled up on the sofa with her head in her hands, Barton describes how she was overcome with the doubt of whether a dog really could really make a difference. Then she felt Bunker sitting on her feet leaning with his back against her shins. Her realization was "yes" Bunker could make a difference… and that's where her story of Dog Medicine really begins.

That epiphany is one of my favorite passages in the book. It not only sets the tone for the rest of the book, but it also the kind of beautifully personal writing that can bring me to tears.

"Really? Could this dog somehow sense when I was sad and comfort me? I had heard of seeing-eye dogs. I’d heard of dogs who could sniff out drugs in suitcases. But a dog who could detect sadness? A dog who could sense a down-tick in mood? I wondered if these new psychiatric drugs were causing me to overly anthropomorphize my dog. But I needed so desperately to be comforted. I needed a companion who had no judgment, with whom I had no history, who would make it known that I was loved, who would never, ever hurt me. 

So I decided to be as sad with Bunker as I needed to be, because he didn’t care. He accepted me. He didn’t need me to be happy. He had witnessed my change in mood, and that alone improved it. He didn’t judge me; he simply saw me. So I told myself: Bunker understands. But this was a whole new kind of understanding. It was wordless, and it let me be sad until an amazing thing happened: the sadness began to dissolve. I was safe with this dog, and the near instant effect was that the desperation and darkness disappeared, burst in the air like soap bubbles. So I let more sadness in. I felt it. I really felt it. Then I petted Bunker and the sorrows didn’t seem nearly as big or awful. They even felt untrue. Like, Oh! You’re not really stupid and ugly and lazy. Of course! You’re not really hopeless. Are you? No. You are not."
Surely it's only the passage of time that allowed Barton to write this book. She tells the story with a voice and wisdom that come with maturity of perspective and probably some advantage of hindsight. Yet, at the same time she clearly hasn't forgotten the pain and despair of depression or the joy and delight she experienced through Bunker..

As Barton said in one of her interviews about the book, she wants to bring people into the subject of depression through Bunker. Using Bunker as her lead, she describes her darkness with such vivid clarity that someone who has never experienced the dark drape of depression will understand. She uses this same comfort from Bunker to explain how a dog could pull down that drape and be with her physically and emotionally through this frightening experience.

Barton’s storytelling about her move to Portland with Bunker, her happiness and missteps in romance, and her relationships with roommates and friends sits you smack-dab in the midst of their story….and this is their story. It's a reciprocal story - she saves Bunker and Bunker saves her. And therein lies the real joy for Bunker, for Barton and certainly for a reader.

Read this book if you love a dog!

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Punctuation Marks of Life

I’m a word nerd. I admit it.

I recently bought the new edition of the Elements of Style not only because the clever artwork on the cover caught my eye, but also because I love the writing in it. I anticipate May like Christmas every year because it’s the release of the updated AP Stylebook.
My reading stack at home includes books like Edit Yourself; Naked, Drunk and Writing; Woe is I; Bird by Bird; Writing Down the Bones; and Eat Shoots and Leaves. I’m really proud of the fact my 11th grade grammar book still has a place on my bookshelf. So it isn’t surprising that I sometimes find myself seeing life as a series of punctuation marks. Take a look at a few examples:
Parentheses – Sets words off from the rest of the sentence with the intention of giving additional detail or meaning. The sentence might make grammatical sense without the words in parentheses, but those words help the reader understand something better.
A parentheses inserted into life is a time set off to gain meaning or insight. This time helps clarify a situation. You can be in a parentheses period when you take time out to make a big decision. This time may not always be necessary, but it’s helpful to get the full meaning of the situation.
Comma – Separates items in a sentence. Forces the reader to take a quick break.
A comma experience helps you take a breath without necessarily stopping. It says “slow down” as you’re barreling through a series of things. Whether it’s your daily to-do list or major life decisions, a life comma makes you tap the brakes and coast a bit.
Colon – Introduces lists or series of items. It says “pay attention.”
A life colon says stop. There are important ideas ahead that you need to look out for. A life colon may appear when you’re seeking information to solve a problem, and there a multiple options to consider.
Hyphen – Connects two or more words that may not otherwise be related.
A hyphen experience is when you play the role of making connections between people who may seem to have nothing in common. I get real pleasure from a life hyphen when I can help two people find they share a mutual interest or experience.
Exclamation mark – Expresses a high degree of emotion.
A life exclamation mark is the surprise, the delight, the joy that comes from an emotional encounter. They occur infrequently so as not to dull the meaning of the situation. I experienced an exclamation mark when I saw the sun rise at the beach last week.
So if you hear me say, “I’m taking a parentheses to figure something out” or “Give me a comma to slow down a second,” please humor me. I’m just channeling my inner word nerd.