Delirium: a man, a dog, a girl, opera, food poisoning, and me


We will start this recitative with a link to “Wysteria” (Dan Fogelberg) sung by singer-songwriter Joshua Payne, my houseguest this past week, because the word “delirium” is going through my head to the tune of his “Wysteria.” It occupies my mind so thoroughly that other words fling around it like confetti. I am recovering from food poisoning. Calamari.

I told Joshua at the time, “These aren’t as good as usual.” I weigh five pounds less than I did three days ago. I will try to write clearly if not coherently.

He and I continued our intense discussion over that fated dinner – at a favorite restaurant, alas – about the musical (opera, perhaps?) he is writing and that we had worked on together throughout the day. He called our conversation “sparring.” I felt it as a battle of voices trying to trump one another where I was the guaranteed loser – he is a trained opera baritone. I tried to convince myself that I might learn a new skill in counterpoint to the “deep listening” we advocated at the non-profit I founded. I didn’t succeed in either convincing myself or gaining the skill though the final result of my internal debate remains to be seen. I can imagine situations where sheer timbre force could have value.

When the conversation changed direction – a maneuver of mine – he quoted Bible verses from Corinthians and Samuels about, yes, the Jews were promised Israel, but God reversed that because the Jews weren’t being good enough. So the promise of land had been valid only for a certain time. Joshua would supply me with as many verses as I wanted.

However, the mere mention of Corinthians made my stomach start to turn and I asked him to stop. He looked baffled.

Finally I took his hand and said, “Really, you must stop now,” which he did with a surprised look while I launched into the closest thing to a rant I’ve done in years. It was on how much I dislike religions – ALL religions – and Bible-driven mentalities, and the damage done by people who think they are superior and chosen and right, and how religion stopped people from thinking clearly about reality and goodness and humanity right in front of them in real time. I had no idea I felt quite that strongly about it.

Joshua was brought up under fundamentalist Christianity, brutal and violent on the one hand and redemptive and beautiful on the other. He is the child of pastors (albeit musical ones) in Arkansas and has come to some kind of terms with it, even really likes the Old Testament.

I, however, when trying to initiate upchucking around 2:00 am, only had to think “Corinthians” for the “upchuck” button to be pushed.

[Please continue to listen to “delirium” sung so sweetly in the way Joshua sings “Wysteria.”]

My anti-religion rant wasn’t my first outburst. Mid-week, exhausted and taut, I snapped at the person dearest to me, shocking us both. I snapped about something I had planned for years to explain gently, carefully, as a trait that hurt me. So much for gentleness! (We have worked our way through this and she is stocking me with Gingerale and some godawful thing called “vitamin water” that comes in magenta and cobalt blue.)

I also contacted a former lover about seeing him finally, but reneged it perfunctorily and abruptly a day or two later in a flash of hurt and pique.

Yup, it’s been quite a week. The cost of being surrounded by genius and beauty and harshness? The cost of having my lovely controlled life disturbed? Disturbed?!! Hell!!

photo 10It began with my dog Phoenix, a standard poodle. In addition to having an opera-trained voice of a baritone angel, Joshua is a dog whisperer – though I never actually saw him whisper – and Phoenix needed training.

Phoenix jumped on people, Phoenix went ballistic over deliverymen and  trucks driven by deliverymen or garbagemen, Phoenix became crazed around leaf blowers, Phoenix barked at other dogs, and in my neighborhood there are a lot of deliveries, a lot of dogs, and a lot of leaf blowers.

photo 3Besides, Joshua was charming when I met him in NYC six weeks ago, so I invited him to my home to take care of the dog situation and we would work on his musical in the process. (I was once a playwright. Joshua likes my work.) What could go wrong?

Well, first off, Joshua couldn’t figure out the deal with Phoenix, couldn’t decode him. Why wasn’t he packing with us/him/me? It is one thing to know your dog is disobedient. It is another to know he prefers other people to you and that what affection he has for you is as a free agent. We now know Phoenix’s chosen pack – his hierarchical ranking, and affection, order – is 1) the man he stays with when I’m away, 2) the man who did construction in my house the first two years of his life, 3) my 4-year-old granddaughter, and then probably me. Joshua came to occupy a unique separate place.

Before we finished, eight different people were here for training with “my” dog and Joshua had to “take down” Phoenix twice. The first time wasn’t too bad and I saw it. (On the second day of training, Phoenix skulked under the piano and growled and showed teeth when I tried to get him out.)

Joshua said from the beginning there would be a rebellion around day 4, and there was. This second and final “take down,” which I luckily did not see, was the real deal and ended with the two bonded as spent fighters in each other’s clutches on the grass in nearby woods. After that, my dog began to sleep with Joshua who called him “my warrior brother” and wanted to take him back to Nashville with him.

Phoenix no longer jumps on people and does not bark at deliverymen, their trucks, other dogs, or leaf blowers. He walks in perfect “heel” and “stays” where he is supposed to, though he cheats a little on “stay” with me. We’re working on it.

My dog, who prefers others more than me (yes, I’m still adjusting to this truth I already knew, hence the repetition), seems both relieved of his self-imposed job description of Protector Against All Things, i.e. some things are our friends – and bored from the new quiet in the house. (I am grieved and guilty at not being strong enough to walk him and so wish Joshua were still here for him. The sight of Joshua walking long-haired and barefoot through my fancy area of DC with Phoenix on a loose leash prancing at his side was a sight to behold. He even walked in peace between two leaf blowers like they were playing a duet just for him.)

So, in a week’s time I faced the truth of my dog’s allegiance, had a non-stop revolving door of people and training, affronted people I love, was sleep deprived, drank too much wine, offered food continuously, and had a musical genius either caressing me 24/7 with his music (piano, guitar, voice) and/or poetry, or challenging me front on, or embracing with glee (and our mutual goosebumps) my ideas for his musical – or regaling me with his childhood which reinforced any stereotype I’ve ever had about the South. In sum, I lost control of my life as I gained control of my dog. And then I got food poisoning.

Just one snippet: Past midnight once again. Mucho wine. I’m immobile, and can only watch as he meticulously cleans up the dinner dishes, scrubs my stove, triple-wipes the countertops with Windex while telling me how the junior high school principal broke his vertebrae with a canoe (?) paddle for chewing gum in school. What does one do with this?

My 4 1/2-year-old granddaughter in all her sweetness was the contretemps, determined to learn how to control Phoenix through simple commands and hugs. He wants to obey her. You see his heart expand. You see him listen and wait.

photo 5

When Joshua left two days ago, Phoenix was reluctant to watch. But it’s important as part of the pack to explain to your animal that you are leaving but that you will return. You can’t just disappear.

So Joshua spoke to Phoenix, and then he spoke to Josie. I watched, sick and in pajamas, knowing that I too was part of the pack, even if not the preferred leader.

photo 6


After Joshua left, Josie sat with Phoenix for a long time, petting him and explaining that Joshua would be back. When a visitor came later, Phoenix did not jump on her. Well, he considered it and I gave the “NIE” command and he sat and waited to be petted. If not his #1, I did get his willing cooperation.

I wouldn’t have missed this week for anything, . . .

. . . and now the musical includes a key character based on Josie’s great great great (more?) grandfather, sheriff of Dodge City. How good is this?

photo 9