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Seizing the dog days l Chuck's World


Last updated 8/15/2018 at Noon

The days following the heliacal rising of the brightest star in our night sky, Sirius, the Dog Star, have been for millennia thought of as dismal, sometimes dangerous. It’s the most uncomfortable part of the summer in the northern hemisphere, at least for most, and thus we have the dog days of August.

You are here.

I think about a dog every August, actually. It was August 2011 when our 14-year-old Sheltie began his ultimate journey, his arthritic hips failing him, the humiliation of having me carry him up and down the stairs endured quietly.

We all knew what was happening that August, although no one talked about it. He would let us know when, and he did.

It’s been seven years, and I still hear him, wait for him to come to the door. I call the cat by his name all the time. The cat doesn’t seem to mind.

There are other things, uncomfortable anniversaries that make me think I should skip August. For all the happy memories, weddings and weekends away, always beautiful weather, August sometimes feels ominous.

It can pack a bit of a punch, let’s say, at least personally. And four years ago, it landed in my solar plexus, emptying my lungs and leaving me breathless.

I don’t know why I watched that Robin Williams documentary the other night. I knew it was available. I knew I’d eventually get around to it. It just seemed questionable for the moment, when I’m still coming to terms with the recent loss of a good friend.

Different stories, of course. Still. August is tricky enough without sadness.

It was always going to be sad. The sudden deaths of celebrities seem to remind us of this, that every story, no matter how glorious and special, has the same ending. They bring mortality into sharp focus – if David Bowie can be felled by mere sickness, anyone can. Of course.

And suicides are particularly brutal, because they shatter our illusions and remind us that we never knew the whole story, anyway. Even the accidental overdoses that are scattered throughout history, from Marilyn to Judy, to Michael Jackson and Prince, are glimpses into worlds we didn’t see on the screen, or didn’t care to notice.

These are people we don’t know, offering only the illusion of intimacy until the headlines start screaming.

We react to these in different ways. Philip Seymour Hoffman numbed his psyche in the same way as an unemployed coal miner strung out on Vicodin, and lost his life in a familiar way, and still I was irrationally angry for a long time. The same was true for a few friends, I noted, when Anthony Bourdain took his own life.

We can’t understand their pain, so we focus on our loss. It’s selfish, and ignorant, and heartless, and completely understandable, I guess.

When George Harrison died of cancer in 2001, I wrote a column about it, wondering in print how my then-11-year-old son would react in the future when one of his entertainment heroes died. I mentioned Robin Williams, as an example. I thought we all had more time.

The HBO documentary, called “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” is worth watching if you were a fan. For me, having come across him when he was still unknown, still performing on street corners, still off most radars, I felt a special connection, as if I had been there first.

And when his death was announced, on Aug. 11, 2014, I felt as though the answers were already there. His abuse of alcohol and other drugs when he was younger was part of the record, but it didn’t feel like that. There seemed to be something else, and there was.

The autopsy report, and a detailed article by his widow in a neurology publication, told the tale—Williams suffered from Lewy body dementia. It was always going to kill him, and in an ugly, horrendous way. Whether he knew this and took an early exit, or had lost momentary contact with reality, feels irrelevant. No one was going to be able to help him.

It was always going to be sad.

This is the problem with August. Summer performs on street corners, getting some reps in before bursting onto the scene, all sunshine and warmth. Our Julys are spectacular.

And then the grass gets yellow, and the days feel the same, and kids start getting new backpacks, and it begins to feel as though August is something to be endured, to be waited out until the weather changes.

But there have been great Augusts, I know, and I’m just pretending to sense a pattern here.

Given our calendar, August is always going to be about passages, about the end of some things and the beginning of others. It’s about moving into dorm rooms and meeting new teachers. It’s about basking in warmth that’s already on its way out.

I saw a movie, that’s all. It reminded me once again that even famous people have expiration dates. That life is brief, and uncertain. That laughter is perhaps are most valuable resource, and people who make us laugh are to be cherished.

I stand on the front porch at 8 a.m., noting that it’s nearly 70 degrees and the sky is filled with sunshine. These legs aren’t going to walk themselves, I think, so I head off into August.

Carpe diem, he said, so I do.


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