The Family Dog Channels Nigel Bruce

IMG_0017The Coleman family’s black lab, terrier mix is named after Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. John Watson. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Watson is intelligent, insightful, not like Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of a hapless, bumbling partner to Basil Rathbone’s smooth-operating Holmes. If you want to see a faithful adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, find the Granada Television’s series starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke (or David Burke). The Brits keep close to Conan Doyle, so when Watson seems inept, it’s only because he’s working beside Holmes, who can solve a crime by noticing how butter has melted or how a rope has been cut. Nobody can keep up with Holmes.


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When the name Watson came to me, I was thinking of Hardwicke or Burke, but the dog I fell in love with the moment neighbor Meg brought him as a stray to our door has proven to be more like Nigel Bruce’s Watson. He’s the friendliest dog you’ll ever meet, though you wouldn’t think so if you rang the doorbell. He barks so loudly and long that you’d think his eyeballs would fly out of his head. Then you come inside, he sniffs you, you pat his head, and he says in dog language, “Let’s play fetch.”

He’s amiable, but kind of sluggish. Toss him a piece of filet mignon, and it’ll hit him between the eyes and land on the floor. He’ll pause, sniff, gingerly take it between his front teeth, and let it roll back onto his tongue—as if it might be a little square of plastic explosives. Even as an old guy who’s seen as much as the next dog, he still hasn’t figured out the vacuum cleaner. He’s never been able to trust it.

I could name a dozen annoying habits Watson has (example: he fidgets and meanders constantly during his daily constitutional so that our backyard looks like its been aerated), but he’s such a faithful napping partner I hold nothing against him. When this dog dies, I’m going to be in trouble; that’s how close we are.

We have a routine. I say, “Okay, Watty, you want to go take a nap?”

I start up the stairs, and nine days of out ten, I hear Watson’s labored, clicking steps behind me. He’s nine and has torn both ACLs—we had one repaired, no cheap date.

I lie down on the bed, pat the other side, and say, “Come on, get your spot.”

He looks up at me as if to say, “You know I’m a gimp. Why do you do this to me?” But then he hops up, pirouettes, and plunks down.

From this point on, Watson has a menu of behaviors to choose from. If there are no disturbances, he’s asleep quickly.

As he settles in, he often devotes two or three minutes to making old mutt smacking noises with his fat wet mouth. It’s as if he’s tasting and re-tasting whatever he last ate. If he doesn’t let up, I say, “Watson, seriously!” and he stops, snorts, and puts his chin on his front paws.

A few days ago wife Kathy and daughter Elena took him for a walk on a warm afternoon, so it was a pooped Watson who joined me on the bed. He was panting so hard the bed rocked to his breathing’s fast, jerky rhythm. Eventually I opened my eyes. Not only was he being loud, but every ten seconds a drop of spit fell from his exercise-swollen tongue. I was okay with this. It’s hard to get mad at a senior citizen who’s just worked out.


Note the Bead of Saliva About to Fall

On the other hand, it’s hard not to get annoyed when dog-walking traffic is brisk on Shenley Drive and Watson has to warn all passersby that he’s watching. He slides from the bed, sticks his snout against the screen, and hollers. All it takes to quiet him is a gentle “Watty, I don’t want to hear it,” but then he switches to short, throaty groans. He only relaxes again when everything’s clear.


“Hey, That’s My Boulevard!”

Amazingly, most days I fall asleep. On wakeful afternoons, I remember how blessed it feels to rest next to a dog that channels Nigel Bruce.

Watson’s also my prayer partner, especially when I sit propped on the bed. Here we follow the siesta routine because to him sleep and prayer look a lot alike. I will admit that last week he came close to upsetting me. About fifteen minutes into a half-hour sit, my pal hopped up on the bed, looked at me with confused eyes, scratched the comforter to make a sweet spot, glanced at me again, then flopped.

Warning: if you have a twitchy gag reflex, you may want to pass on the rest of the story.

Thousand-one, thousand-two, thousand-three. Then the retching began.

(Coleman pets have had a long-standing policy of getting sick in aggravating places. First, never on tile; always on carpet. Second, if you value something, secure it. I once left a new Asus laptop open in my study, and a cat named Greasy Spot leapt onto my desk and had the mother of all appointments with loose bowels on the keyboard. The computer survived but was thereafter known as the craptop. And third, it is possible to hide hairballs. Years ago a cat left one in the toe of one of my moccasin slippers. Imagine how I discovered it.)

About that retching: “On the bed, Watson,” I said. “Really?”

Really. I won’t get detailed (you’re welcome), but it was a blonde, abundant, single unit.

I went downstairs to fetch wet rags and returned to find that—remember, you were warned—the puke was gone. I mean, gone. Watson was no longer confused; in fact, he seemed pleased.


My Satiated Cud-master After Interrupting My Prayer

I went through the motions, scrubbing away at where the incident had occurred, but, wow, the dog doesn’t even clean his food bowl that well. Glad it hadn’t happened on my pillow; I’d never have known.

Confession: I finished praying before taking the comforter to the basement. And I wasn’t angry at my buddy. What’s a little barking and barfing between loved ones? This afternoon he’ll be joining me again for blessed oblivion.

My Hungry Ghost Will Have Eggs Benedict, Please.


Credit: Mark Schumacher

I first met Hungry Ghosts a couple years ago while riding Amtrak’s Silver Meteor from Philadelphia to Orlando. I was reading Savor by Thich Nhat Hanh and R. Lilian Cheung, who write, “Buddhism describes creatures known as pretas, or Hungry Ghosts, who have insatiable appetites for food, drinks, or other cravings. They are desperate beings who are always hungry, with tiny mouths; long, narrow necks; and distended bellies. Though they are constantly ravenous, driven by the desire to eat, their tiny mouths and necks prevent them from swallowing the food they ingest.”

On the unhappy way to see my father and step-mother, both of whom were suffering from dementia, I immediately recognized myself as a member of the Preta family. The train rocked, jerked and clattered, but it may as well have been a monastery. Since everybody was a stranger, the journey was mostly conversation-optional, which was convenient. I wasn’t in a chatty mood. The condominium complex where my father and step-mother lived struck me as sterile and surreal, like something out of a Tim Burton movie—irk! And the two people I was traveling to visit were sure to repeat themselves constantly and bristle at my encouragement to move into an assisted living facility. Maybe because I was bracing myself for the forty-eight cruddy hours ahead, the insight that the Preta clan’s DNA twined in my soul wasn’t depressing. As long as I was in a dark space already, why not uncover a little brokenness? It was as if Savor were diagnosing me with a condition I knew afflicted me, but couldn’t name.

I don’t have a tiny mouth, narrow neck, and distended belly, but I am frequently ravenous and occasionally desperate. And, sadly, I can swallow lots of food and drink. My real relation to the Pretas, though, is the way I sometimes eat: quickly, mindlessly, excessively. It’s not pretty. I’m much better now than I used to be, but as the saying goes, “Two steps forward, one step back.”


Triple the Hollandaise, Please! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Today was one step back. Two dear friends and I shared breakfast at Perkins Family Restaurant, and I went at my order like a Hungry Ghost: eggs Benedict, home fries, and potato pancakes. Since I engaged in a modified fast yesterday (diabetes makes a strict fast difficult), I started dreaming of this meal over twelve hours in advance.

And, man, was it good. Perkins has fantastic hollandaise sauce, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I ordered extra on the side. The home fries were crisp, the potato pancakes with salt, butter, and sour cream were—I’m just going to say it—almost sexy. Were my eyelids fluttering as I ate? Were my eyeballs rolling back? Maybe.

When I finished the first half of the eggs Benedict and home fries, the mindful, buzz-kill side of me said, “Wow. That was great. And actually, you’re full. You could stop now, take the rest home.” Ha! By the time I had one pancake left I was uncomfortable. But the company was great, the conversation light, and ten minutes later I looked at that lonely pancake and thought what all we Pretas think: “Ah, what the hell.”

Hell is right. After exorcising myself from Perkins, I sat at church in the pastor’s study in a stupor, too full of fat, salt, starch, and chicken embryos to think. If it’s possible to be drunk on food, that’s what I was. The work got done, but I’m not sure how. The only thing that kept me from napping at 10:30 a.m. was that it really would have been an abuse of the company clock. My congregation is great to me, a gift not to be taken for granted.

But when normal siesta time came around, I was a bloated, white walrus in boxer shorts, slack-jawed on my bed at home. (For your own safety, don’t try to picture it.) Four hours after pushing the cleaned plates away, I still felt like I was with-child. Sometimes when you overeat, you can feel food sloshing around in your stomach, right? No sloshing here. There was no room for liquid or air. My whole torso was a sad, weary, dense wad of breakfast.


Carl Brutannanadilewski of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a Brother Preta (Credit: Wikipedia)

Here it’s important to pause and confess–the point of this post–that a siesta isn’t always a glowing expression of good health. Some afternoons, sleep is an expression of disappointment and self-loathing—that’s only a slight exaggeration. I napped lustily a few hours ago not only because the Preta in me was exhausted, but also because I was tired of myself. As everybody knows, the weaknesses that keep circling back to you again and again are a drag. Just when you think you’ve left a struggle behind, it shows up in dirty sweatpants and a wife beater and sprawls on your couch in all of its whiskery, flabby glory. Tiring, very tiring.

It’s nearly 7:00 p.m., but nothing for me anytime soon—still full. Maybe some soup later on. The nap did help, and I did get to start my day by laughing with friends, for whom I give thanks every day. I’m grateful that my Hungry Ghost isn’t a frequent visitor anymore, but when he arrives, the truth is, sometimes he gets the better of me.


Credit: Mark Schumacher

Diddy Wa Diddie and a Lovely Daughter


The Key in Question (Honest!)

Yesterday. Weird. Wonderful. I’d just finished praying, propped up in bed, when daughter Elena’s dog ringtone barked. 8:01 a.m. I’d intended to set my Zen bell app for another fifteen minutes, but duty called. Elena (almost twenty-five) locked her keys in her house. Could I zip up and let her in with my key? Of course. I’d be there in ten minutes.

“Don’t rush, Daddy,” she said. “My boss knows I’ll be a little late. I’ll be at [mother-in-law] Janine’s,” which is two-minute walk up the street. (As it happened, Janine couldn’t find Elena’s house key either.)


Photo Credit: waferboard

So I dressed, fed the animals and, well, rushed, but it still took me twenty minutes to get there. I figured Elena would be on the porch pacing and drumming her fingers on the railing. Nope. She was inside sipping coffee, talking with Janine and cute-as-an-acre-of-daisies niece Shaylee, and so disgustingly not in a hurry that she immediately brought me to myself.

Shamatha—calm abiding. Habit energy’s anxious gravity eased up. I breathed in, breathed out.

“I walked up here, Daddy,” Elena said when we got into the car, “and said, ‘I’m going to have myself a cup of coffee.’”


Elena with Her Handmade Cupcake Piñata

I waited in the car as she let herself into the house, brought back the key, and headed to her car. In the three seconds it took her to get from my jalopy to her (and princely son-in-law Matt’s) Subaru wagon, joy settled inside me. Her ponytail bobbed and bounced; her flowing dress swayed. What a lovely daughter! She seemed in that instant like a five-year-old again—sweetness and light, giddy in the sunshine and wind.

I drove back home to pick up son Micah (twenty-one) and get him to a couple hour’s of community service yanking weeds and slinging peat moss. Along the way I pulled over on South Shore Drive to witness the sun coming through the spring trees on the boulevard.


Micah’s body clock has goofed itself into third-shift mode, so I woke him three hours after he’d gone to bed. In year’s past when he was in the midst of mighty struggles—more on those someday, with his permission—he’d have been a winey little witch, but he got up, ate a bowl of Raisin Bran, hopped in the car, lit a cigarette, and joked with me till I dropped him off. “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!” Boy is becoming a man.

Before driving off, I texted chemo-nurse-wife Kathy, who had told me she expected a crazy day at work. Every now and then I send her what we call a Pocket Note, a taste of gladness she can read over lunch. “Kathy Coleman gets tired and is very busy,” I wrote, “but she genuinely cares about her patients. And that’s wonderful.” As I hit send, I heard the voice of Jack Nicholson in my head: “Well, aren’t you the little ray of sunshine.”


Jack Nicholson (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On my way to the church, I plugged my snotty iPhone into the car speakers and listened to Leon Redbone’s rousing version of “Diddy Wa Diddie” on You Tube. (Yes, I know about the song’s double entendre, but don’t care. Want a song that’ll make you want to laugh and dance? Have a go.) It was so good I listened to it twice.

And the day went on like this, blessings lining up on the road before me. Micah’s last-minute therapy appointment forced me to abbreviate my siesta, but even this alteration to my plans didn’t take the shine off the afternoon.

While my son unpacked the meaning of life, I perched two minutes east on West 26th Street on Brick House Coffee Bar’s porch, nursed an iced latte, and did some church work—what a gift to have a flexible schedule and technology that lets me get work done literally anywhere!

I could go on, but you get the idea. “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” That’s how John Lennon would have described yesterday. If Elena hadn’t locked herself out, the day might not have glowed as it did.

Thanks, my dear, for inspiring Thursday, May 16th to be full of gentle, mindful sanity!


By the Driveway

Confessions of an Itinerant Contemplative

I consider it an outrage that I woke yesterday morning with the well-intended but terrible song “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” playing in my head. Who sang that? Was it Placido Domingo and John Denver? No. That was another sweet one, “Perhaps Love,” or as Placido sang it, “Puh-da-hahps Love.” Was it Willie Nelson and Domingo? Close. Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias!


Okay, Boys, Show Us Those Irresistible Smiles (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

I wish the tune would go away, but I’m grateful for the thought it coaxed out of me. In their hit, Willie and Julio take on the character of itinerant Don Juans, loving a girl at every stop on tour—oh, brother! Wherever they go, they love. I, on the other hand, am an itinerant contemplative, praying and napping (my two requirements for contemplation, anyway) wherever I go. All I need is a decent spot to sit or recline.

Years ago most midday rest came at home, but now the pastor’s study regularly hosts blessed oblivion, as does the car if I’m faced with a long wait. And, of course, travel has never prevented napping. I’ve taken siestas in cars and on buses, trains, and ships, but never on a plane–too nervous. I’ve probably napped in over half of the fifty states. In the next few years I hope to nap in Europe.


An Office Napping Spot, Set Up in Thirty Seconds

And prayer: I’m apt to pray wherever I can sit down.


Beloved Home Prayer Chair


Pillow That Turns Bed into Prayer Chair


A Quiet Nook at the Wellness Center


Prayer Chair in the Messy Pastor’s Study


View from the Prayer Chair in a 1999 Mazda 626

A couple of places you’d think would be good for contemplation actually don’t work very well.


Lovely Church Sanctuary, Many Seats, But Every Noise in the Building Echoes Here


Beautiful Zen Garden at the Wellness Center, But Hard Benches and High Thermostat

I don’t often need to nap in public, but I’m always praying out in the open. Some people get mad about their doctor being behind schedule, but unless I’ve got somewhere else to be, I close my eyes, sit still, and breathe. I’ve prayed in a probation office waiting room a few times and even managed it in the natter of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. In a coffee shop? Yes. In a department store while wife Kathy tries on clothes? Sure. In a library? Absolutely. I used to feel self-conscious when folks passed by, but what for? I don’t mind being known as the pudgy guy with owl glasses who sits around with his eyes closed.


The Library of Congress; I’d Pray This Reading Room (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When this long, cold spring on the shore of Lake Erie breaks, I’ll take the show outside, too: the front porch, back patio, and Presque Isle State Park are all in the running. In fact, if I had more time today, I’d find some shade at Presque Isle and chase down an hour’s siesta with half-an-hour’s prayer. It’s sunny and 77 degrees. The rest of this week won’t be so nice, but before long I’ll have more places to nap and pray than I know what to do with. For now I’ll settle for an hour in my own bed–that is, if I can shut out these playboys singing “to all the girls [they] once caressed.” “And may [they] say [they’ve] held the best.” Ugh!

The Gift of an Unvarnished “No”


Dom Edmond Obrecht (Photo Credit: Abbey of Gethsemani)

This past Thursday, the last full day of my retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, was extravagant and challenging. As usual, I wrote in the morning at the Java Joint in Bardstown, then returned to the abbey for lunch. I had it in mind to ask the guest master if I could enter the cloistered area of the monastery to look at the graves of those who died long ago, some of whom I feel like I knew: Dom Frederic Dunne, Merton’s first abbot, and his predecessor Edmond Obrecht, and the abbots before them. I’ve read so much about them it’s as if they’re friends.

At 1:00 I caught the guest master outside his office. “Do you have a minute?” I said. “I have a question?”

His body language said, “Oh, bother,” but he said, “Sure, come in.”


Dom Frederic Dunne (Photo Credit: Biographia Cisterciensis)

I said, “It’s a simple question, and I’ll understand if the answer is no.”

“That’s quite a forecast,” he said. “Okay, no.” He laughed. Before I could get my question out, he followed up: “Okay, maybe.” Big smile.

A little awkward. “Maybe’s a start,” I said. “I was wondering if I could look at the monks’ graves in the enclosure after Compline tonight?” The Great Silence begins after Compline, when the brothers go to bed. I figured there’d be no chance of disturbing anybody.

Before my words were out he was shaking his head: “No.”


“Okay,” I said, nodding and keeping my word that no was all right.

More silence.

“Yeah, that was all,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “That was easy.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” I walked down the hall and climbed the stairs to my room. Of course, I was crushed—temporarily at least.

IMG_0482Okay, this was no big deal, but nobody likes to receive such a flat out denial to a reasonable request. Nobody would have been around? Who would have been hurt by my walking softly on those graves?

When I reached my room, it was my normal prayer time, so I began to do what I always do, which was try to make myself peaceful before I’m finished being hurt and pissed. So I let myself have some time to be put out. Eventually, as so often happens with shamatha—calm abiding—in the Sacred Presence, truth arrived. My reaction wasn’t about the kind, but honest, guest master, but about me.

No doesn’t work for me on any level. I’m terrible about saying no to myself (this is partially why I’m a diabetic), and I agonize about saying no to others. When somebody says no to me, suddenly I’m an adolescent with a quivering lip. Why? Long story, birth family, blah, blah, blah.

Anyway, during those forty-five minutes I sat in silent prayer after what felt like a rebuke, I understood that the guest master had actually given me a gift.


During Worship at Gethsemani, Retreatants Don’t Sit with the Brothers

Often in this life, the answer is no. No, no, no! There’s no dressing it up, no making it palatable or painless. It doesn’t matter that the question is reasonable. And this isn’t about the old saying that “God answers all prayer, but sometimes the answer is no.” None of that business of cleaning no up and making it a buddy.

Central to being mature and healthy for me is the ability to say and hear the fullness of no. I’m not there yet, not even close. No kidding, I’m glad now that I heard no unvarnished. Later at Vespers I saw the guest master and thought to myself, “I wish I were more like him.” Thank you, brother!

After forty-five minutes of prayer, my gut relaxed, and I felt in my body what I knew in my head: I’d received a severe blessing. That’s how growth happens.


Brother John (Photo Credit: Abbey of Gethsemani)

The extravagance I mentioned came in the presence of Brother John, who shared pizza and Chimay Trappist Ale with me in the Norton Speaking Room. Thursday was the Ascension of Our Lord, an observance for Christians and an occasion for monastic partying. On festival days, the brothers crack excellent beer and eat something unusually delicious for dinner. For Brother John, the celebration consisted of two beers and two pieces of pizza. I consumed the same, but under normal circumstances, I’d consider such a meal dainty. John has his hungry ghosts (stay tuned for a future post on these ravenous spirits) under control; me, not so much.

IMG_0466My Gethsemani retreat was crowded with blessings. I enjoyed free-range siestas, long hours of prayer, plenty of reading and writing at the desk by the window, and especially those talking dinners with Brother John. I even appreciated remembering my father’s death and hearing the guest master’s no.

I wish my most important lessons didn’t feel like a punch to the sternum at first, but that’s how learning seems to happen for me. Some foolishness needs to get expelled so there’s room for health and insight.

It’s Sunday afternoon now, back home in Erie, Pennsylvania. For Mother’s Day the Coleman family will go out for all-you-can-eat shrimp, but first I feel a nap coming on. Being away is great, but getting back home is better still.


Man and Beloved Cat, Together Again.

Guilty for Napping? Take a Siesta!


The Siesta, Vincent Van Gogh

About the only thing I don’t love about napping is that word: napping. Nap makes people think of being caught napping or squeezing in a napSiesta is a much better word, but you don’t hear many people say, “I’m going to take a siesta.” The monks of the Abbey of the Genesee in New York State include an optional siesta in their daily schedule. At 11:15 they gather for one of the monastic hours called Sext, which shares its etymology with siesta. The Latin sexta means sixth, which refers to the sixth hour after sunrise—noon.  After a short period of chanting psalms at 11:15, the monks eat their main meal of the day, then are free to rest until 1:05 p.m., when they gather for None and return to manual labor.  So it is at about noon, the sixth hour after sunrise and the tenth hour after their day begins, that the brothers do what I most often do at 2:00 or 3:00, the eighth or ninth hour after I rise: they (and I) take a siesta.

Nap’s etymology is anemic by comparison.  It comes from the Old English hnappian, which is “to doze, sleep lightly.” Its origin is unknown, though nap made its first appearance as a noun circa 1300. Since then, Yogi Berra said, “I usually take a two hour nap from one to four.” Robert Fulghum wrote, “Think what a better world it would be if we all-the whole world-had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap.” Ovid said, “There is more refreshment and stimulation in a nap, even of the briefest, than in all the alcohol ever distilled.” Still, folks seem to feel guilty for napping, as Martha Stewart does: “I catnap now and then, but I think while I nap, so it’s not a waste of time.” So people who rest at midday without accomplishing something are wasting time? That’s napping for you.

Siesta has been troubled by no such cloud. Especially in places where noon to 3 p.m. is sweltering, the smart thing to do is eat a nice meal, then sleep. Multiple sources pin this wisdom down as the original rationale for a siesta. Damian Corrigan of writes, “Spain is a hot country, especially mid-afternoon, and the traditional reason for the siesta is for the workers in the fields to shelter from the heat. They would then feel refreshed after their sleep and would work until quite late in the evening, longer than they would have been able to without the siesta.”

For many glad centuries Spain and countries with similar climates have taken the siesta for granted, just as I never questioned stores being closed on Sundays when I was a kid. Would that Spain’s custom span the ocean to multi-tasking North America! Unfortunately, according to Katya Adler of BBC News, the tide’s moving in the opposite direction: Spain’s “corporate culture now spurns the idea of daytime dozing as being unproductive, and the siesta is fast becoming an endangered institution. Spain is fast becoming a nation of sleep deprivation. Globalisation in the workplace and the rising number of multinational companies in Spain means businessmen cannot afford to disappear from their desk for hours.”

Penny wise and pound foolish. I’ll continue to take a siesta not only because I like it and find health in it, but also because the stampede toward profit and productivity irks me.  At around 2:00 p.m. today, I know what I’ll be doing.