I have of late–butHamlet Act 2 Scene ii
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?
My letters have bogged down, the memories thick with the conditions of the times do not a sublime concoction make. The glass has been heavy. I told you in the beginning, I was terrified of Not Having Enough Time. The world is not making this worry any less. Werner Herzog, Imperial guy trying to get Baby Yoda in The Mandalorian, said recently that like Germany, the United States was waking up to the fact that 1/3 of the population would kill another 1/3 of the population while the other 1/3 watches. He is right, and it is terrifying. I taught for seven years, and then it all came tumbling down. But the time in the classroom, and on the road with the Speech & Debate team, was not all peaches ‘n cream. In fact, almost everything in my life turned upside down by the time you were 1. Teaching and coaching really just became lifelines.
John Lennon wrote that life is what happens while we are busy making other plans. This is so absolutely true. I do not want to be the villain of your story. I do not want you to remember me badly, or worse…. not remember me at all. I fear this is the case, but I write these letters anyway. Hoping against hope that somewhere in the quintessence of our dust – the common sands and grains resonate deeper than the ills that split us.
But my life, the split summers, the two different lives, the mission with its successes and failures, tragic death, the classroom and the debate road, and ultimately marriage – all left me at the close of my twenties in a fractured world that was not supposed to be this way. The pains of woulda, coulda, shoulda only led to more mistakes. I am reminded continually of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. I find myself often saying, motive doesn’t matter. What you meant to do doesn’t matter. Nobody cares. It is only the effects that anybody cares about. Unfortunately, that is far more true than not.
The story of your first decade of life, at least from the perspective of your father, was the story of my failure. My only successes in those years were in the classroom, with other people’s children.
Everything else… hurt.
Religion had failed. Romance had failed. Family had failed. Fatherhood had failed. All of the illusions had shattered. Rick, the big bull rider that was larger than life, had nothing figured out. He was dead. Papa, the Captain, had departed the Porch of All Conversations forever. I had lost my only child. But I was the best teacher I could possibly be. And I was wracked with guilt.
In the end, the story of those years is best told through Alaskan Malamutes and the lessons that breeding them, racing them, and working with them taught me about everything else. Much like my great-grandfather, Nick ‘Ned’ Clark, the illiterate half-breed who became a sheep herder was with his dogs, and his son, Norman, was with horses, I found my way through the maze of my failures through the understanding of animals. No judgement. No religion. No rules. Just love. That is all dogs teach.
And somehow… people have found that they cannot live without them.
When 8 Below came out, White Mountain Entertainment contacted me. They had a special viewing for all of the Blue Ridge Elementary kids. When the kids came out of the theater… my dog team and sled was set up awaiting them. My dog, Timber, the red one, was brothers with “Max” the big red Malamute in the movie. In fact, I tried to buy Max, but Disney had him on lease. So I bought his brother. True story. It was magical. I wish that you had been able to experience any of the things that I did…. right.
One of the things that you realize right away as a teacher is that you have to get creative with the way you make money. This is complicated by the fact that we keep increasing the amount of the year that a teacher is working, lessening the time of vacations, but not increasing their pay. My answer to summer income was two fold. First, I could allocate which paycheck my Speech and Debate funds paid out on. I put all of the money on my final paycheck of the school year, and then pre-paid rent for the entire summer. Second, I invested in a dream – Stratford Giant Alaskan Malamutes.
And just like that, I began building an AKC Kennel from scratch. Each dog was named for a character from Shakespeare, each female was only bred once every three cycles, I had a waiting list of at times over 30. Puppies I raised raced in the Iditarod. And for about five years, my kennel never lacked business, never sold puppies to unqualified buyers, defied the idea of backyard puppy mills, and became one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
There was a magic to training those pups, running through the woods tied to a three-wheeled contraption and hoping the Elk would stay away. There was a beauty to clipping the double lead rope between a new pup and Konan (who was never a breed dog, he was a half-breed, he inspired the dream, but did not get the name he deserved. My Konan was my Horatio: best friend to Hamlet.) There was a humility in the understanding that I never did a thing. I trained one dog. And he did everything else.
All I did was hold on.
After the first two or three hundred yards, the pace begins to set, the breathing finds a rhythm, the puffs of steam paint illusory mosaics of fog over the snow track, and the rise and fall of the Malamute hips in wheel, become the heartbeat of the world. “Hupp hupp Konan, lead on. Hupp!” My voice sounded muffled against the silence and the snow and the whisper of sled skis, like it would have echoed through the forest, if it was not covered in a blanket.
It was never really about winning. It was about living. It was about experiencing. It was about being able to look back thirty years at that Jack London daydream, and say, in my own little way, that I did it. It was really the first time in my life, that I just willed something into existence. I put my mind to something, and even though I had no experience, and no idea what I was doing more than what I had read in books, I accomplished exactly what I put my mind to.
I raced sled dogs. I birthed puppies. I placed in weight pull competitions. I helped move the breed, back to its Inuit roots. (Malamutes were never supposed to be ‘crate size’. The breed was “made smaller” as their popularity grew in the lower 48.) Somehow it all landed me in Arizona Highways in December of 2006.
Several months later, my life would completely fall apart. One by one, I would be forced to part with the dog team and kennel I had meticulously built from combining blood lines from across the country. I had to watch my dream dismantled, piece by piece.
Juliette – the all white ball of chaos. (White is the only solid Malamute color that is genetically possible).
Romeo – the rescued Siberian Husky from the Humane Society that ran a sled dog race.
Desdemona – the absolutely breath taking giant from Canada. Her pups would have been legends.
Ophelia – The first Mama, who was crazy enough to fit the name.
Timber – whose brother was a movie star, but he was already named. He was a silly savage; his name to me was always Caliban.
Oberon – the only pup I ever kept, and the legacy of what a Stratford Giant Malamute would have been. If the dream had continued.
Konan – my Horatio – my best friend. When I left the mountain, I took Oberon the Fairy King and Konan with me. They stayed with me until the end. Both died the week of Cinco de Mayo, one year apart. Oberon was 10. Konan was 14.
People used to ask me about those two sled dogs in Phoenix. What the hell was I thinking? Truth. I was selfish. I needed them. My life plunged into darkness, and they somehow….. never stopped being my light. I made them as comfortable as I could. I never let them want. And they never left me alone.
When I look back on those times. I am filled with love. Those dogs… taught me more than I ever taught them. They loved me when nobody else would. They never judged. They never hated. They were a joy to teach, to run behind, and to work for. And I am struck by the irony…. that I left to Kansas City to teach religion….. but it wasn’t until I chased dogs through the woods that I understood.
Dogma (noun) : a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.
We fear that pop-culture is the only culture we’re ever going to have
We want to stop reading magazines
Stop watching tv
Stop caring about hollywood
But we’re addicted to the things we hate
We don’t run washington and no one really does
Ask not what you can do for your country
Ask what your country did to you
The only reason you’re still alive is because someone
Has decided to let you live
We owe so much money we’re not broke we’re broken
We’re so poor we can’t even pay attention
So what do you want
You want to be famous and rich and happy
But you’re terrified you have nothing to offer this world
Nothing to say and no way to say it
But you can say it in three languagesKMFDM – DOGMA
You are more than the sum of what you consume
Desire is not an occupation
You are ultimately thrilled and desperate
Sometimes, when I am trying to shut down the world as I close my eyes at night, I can still hear their breathing, and the icy whisper of the skis following behind. I watch their butts rise and fall, as they never cease to wag while they toil in the traces, and I call out…. “Hup Hup Konan. Lead on! Lead on!”
And Horatio and the Fairy King whisk me away into a dream.
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