Friends Old, New, and Soon to Be,
Fifty is an age at which one realizes, whatever you thought you might be on growing up, whatever you are now is likely it. The acceptance of that reality has not been a conscious choice for me, more like something insidious that came like a creeping fog with my entry into middle age. However, a recent period of immobility enforced by a cast on my leg meant I again looked to the Stoics in accepting reality as it is, and then to the Zen Buddhists who ask, “If there is no help for it, what use is there in being sad?”
I think about acceptance a lot working with my Labrador, Jed. There’s a military aphorism that says, “The standard you walk by is the standard you accept.” Trainer Bill Mattes applies that notion to Jed and I alike. When I fail to do the same, I hear Bill’s Long Island accented voice, colored by decades in Southeast North Carolina, saying, “I mean, if that’s what you’re gonna accept.” So, I hold Jed to standards that increase with my own increasing abilities to meet them. We’re both better for it. But to get to that point, I had to accept who he is and who he needs me to be, a realization I came to while slowly driving a country road choked by the smoke of a prescribed burn and contemplating the transcendent nature of the gas station honeybun.
Though perhaps offensive to a pâtissier, the gas station honeybun emerges from plastic in a state of near perfection; a dense, sweet, softness that clouds the senses, like a first lover's embrace. From there, it can become anything one needs it to be, if you always accept it for what it is. A friend simmers them in butter, on cast iron, caramelizing the sugar and adding a delicate crispness to the rolled pillows of dough. Paired with fresh dove breast, bloody from the bone, and seared in the same pan where it is honeykissed by the slightest remainder of melted cinnamon glaze? I challenge that pâtissier to find a more delicate pairing.
The gas station honey bun is equally exquisite pulled semi-frozen from a blind bag by cold-clumsy hands and washed down with a thermos of four-hour old coffee or retrieved half-melted from the dashboard of a truck by a fifty-year-old man after a morning spent shaded under a tree, trying unsuccessfully to sound like a forlorn turkey hen. But for all its glories, a gas station honeybun is also 720 calories of things I cannot pronounce, divided by marketers into three servings, all of which I will eat at once, for the gas station honeybun does not countenance the lie I tell myself at purchase. The gas station honey bun is never not perfect to me, never not what I needed, because I understand and love it for what it is.
Likewise, I loved beyond measure Jed’s predecessor, a ninety-pound bruiser of a yellow Labrador named Earl. I looked at Jed’s father, a similarly sized chocolate, and imagined the growth of the oil shiny black pup in my arms. I’ve since learned that sixty-five pounds is perfect in a boat, in a canoe, in a blind, or asleep on my feet. In training, I expected Jed to come to my way of thinking, to unquestioningly meet me halfway. But my sensitive, sweet boy is happiest when I am happy, desperately strives to make me so, and is wholly unnerved by my frustrated attempts to drive his compliance by repeating a command, only loudly and more forcefully. My failure to know him for who he is, rather than who I thought he should be, only heightened his confusion and, ultimately, his fear of the very thing he loves most, me.
So, as I accept that the gas station honeybun is near perfect in the state in which I found it, but that its perfection may be shaded by circumstance, I accept that Jed requires softer words. The same commands, issued calmly and gently, get me greater results from a dog who spends his leisure hours alternately sleeping on, or licking, my feet as I write. Finally, I feel as if I deserve him.
A honeybun is always a honeybun and Jed is always Jed. And now I understand that only I must adapt, for both are perfect as I found them.
Russell Worth Parker
Editor at Large, Tom Beckbe