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I’ve entered Happy Jack, my first feature-length screenplay into a few film and screenplay festival competitions, and the returns so far are encouraging! Happy Jack earned Honorable Mention selections at the Santa Barbara International Screenplay Awards and the Changing Face International Film Festival.
On the Changing Face International Film Festival awards page, it feels particularly great to be listed with writers from places like Australia, Brazil, Italy and Romania. The world is full of talented writers, so it’s an honor to place among peers from around the world.
So what does earning a pair of honorable mention awards mean for Happy Jack? As far as the script being purchased, probably not much. These awards do provide great exposure for writers hoping to be noticed by people in the industry looking to buy scripts. However, Happy Jack needs to get in the winner or finalist category before anyone’s going to come knocking on my door.
But for a screenplay-writing beginner like me, two honorable mention awards in the span of a week is a clear signal from experts that Happy Jack is a marketable script. Keep working, and it could sell. That’s not just me inferring. The award selection notice I received from Santa Barbara included the following line:
You should be encouraged to continue writing, as your scores for Happy Jack were quite strong in a very competitive field.
The commentary provided by the Santa Barbara judges sent a similar message of “good work, but keep working,” starting off:
Happy Jack is an inspirational drama with equal elements of mystery and romance. Post Katrina New Orleans sets a lively, yet unsettling tone for the action. The script serves our heroic healer well by painting a clear picture of his backstory but does not do enough to explain the catalyst of his otherworldly powers, nor the science behind them.
For now, I’ll wait to see how Happy Jack does in a few more competitions and collect more feedback, then hopefully have solid direction on how to smooth the rough edges then start pitching.
Way back in 2013-14, I wrote a novel manuscript called Happy Jack, which upon honest reflection, I had to admit fell short of what it needed to be to become a published novel.
Still, I adored the plot. I adored the protagonist and villain. I adored a few of the “scenes” — there were pages here and there that I still think are some of my most fun, energetic, creative writing. I had already been itching to try my hand at screenwriting, and it occurred to me with a novel’s worth of content and several very good “scenes” sketched out, Happy Jack was ripe for adaptation.
And now it’s written, edited, peer reviewed and ready to pitch.
Logline: A misanthropic hermit with a special power to make people happy is drawn out of hiding by a determined journalist and a charlatan doctor who force him to confront humanity, hurricanes and corruption in New Orleans.
Think of it as the reluctant superhero flick HANCOCK meets the fantastical southern storytelling of BIG FISH.
If you’re a member of The Black List, you can check out the script and all its details here.
Huge thanks go out to my good friend Chris Dunn, who has been an actor in the New York City stage scene for years and was a producer for the short film THE VILLAGER. He knows his way around a script and gave me some incredible notes to improve HAPPY JACK. Seriously, I can’t thank him enough.
Then it was time for a professional peer review. I hired a reader from The Black List, which in my novice screenwriter opinion looks like one of the better resources to get exposure for scripts. The verdict? Some very positive feedback, some less so. But a vote of confidence for the script’s potential and that it could get to production quality with some work. Not bad for a first try, and I’ll take it! Here’s a few excerpts from the reviewer:
Jack Hazelwood is a man with a gift. He can immediately tell exactly what someone needs for them to be happy. The downside is he is also compelled to do everything in his power to make that happen. It’s an interesting conflict for the protagonist of this story as there is just no way for him to humanly be able to fulfill everyone’s needs. Jack’s struggles with the fact that he is compelled to help everyone around him help to make Jack a compelling protagonist. Jack ends up being whisked away to New Orleans by Dr. Archambeau, a mysterious figure who promises to help Jack with his situation. Once in New Orleans, things get interesting. The best example of Jack’s innate ability to help people ends up being through his efforts to help Red Armstrong and Demetrious. The result of Jack’s efforts ends up being one of the most heartwarming aspects of the script. Jack also ends up helping a Haitian woman named Angelique, who is a sex addict. Every encounter between the two of them is very charged, and the relationship that blossoms between the two of them is arguably the most interesting aspect of the script.
It’s been a journey (design delays, printing delays thanks to supply chain madness in the paper industry), but my new (FIRST!) book is now available for presale on Amazon!
Printed copies of the book, Athlete Brands: How to Benefit from Your Name, Image & Likeness (Darden Business Publishing), co-authored with University of Virginia Darden School of Business marketing Professor Kimberly Whitler, will be available in September.
So what is Athlete Brands? If you’re a fan of college sports, you might be aware of landmark rule changes in the past year that now allow NCAA student-athletes to earn money and other benefits from their name, image and likeness (commonly referred to as NIL).
This is incredibly exciting for student-athletes, but Kim (a former chief marketing officer and a branding expert) realized NIL was fraught with risks for these young students. Earning NIL opportunities is all about an athlete’s personal brand and reputation. Managing a brand is hard work, but Kim had years of professional experience and academic research on how to do it. We put that knowledge to work in a format that would allow student-athletes to create intentional athlete brands that advance their goals. Here’s how we’re pitching it to college athletic directors and others helping athletes navigate the new NIL landscape:
College sports programs are competing on an entirely new playing field now that athletes can profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL). The lure of NIL can detract from athletes’ preparation and performance, distract from their studies, and even lead them away from your sports programs to where they believe the NIL “grass is greener.” Athletics directors can take action to reduce the risks.
Athlete Brands was written to help student-athletes see the big picture and focus on their best interests. It is the first book incorporating student-athlete, athletic department, coaching staff, academic, and marketing professional expertise to help athletes think strategically about how to build their brand and manage NIL in a way that doesn’t compromise their goals. Athlete Brands helps student-athletes create a game plan that will enhance their long-term value. As athletes master the four-step model, they create brands that will better align with the goals of your sports programs. The resulting reputations and relationships they build will power career success long after college.
If you’re interested in helping make this book a success, there are three ways you can help:
- If you know an aspiring or current student-athlete, tell them about this book. Better yet, buy it for them as a gift. It is for them – regardless of their sport, regardless of the level of competition.
- Write a review on Amazon! This is SO important to leverage the Amazon algorithms and get the book in front of more eyeballs. You don’t have to purchase the book to leave a review. Email me at hodgkinsjp(at)gmail.com, and I’ll send you the introduction and first chapter. That’ll give you a solid overview of our framework and enough to write a good-faith review.
- If you’re feeling really charitable and you are a supporter of a particular university’s sports programs, contact the university’s athletics foundation and make a donation earmarked for the foundation to buy copies to give to the student-athletes whose education and empowerment it is their mission to support.
That beautiful image above came as a surprise in my inbox earlier this month, when the fine folks at Thirty West Publishing (publishers of the audio story-focused e-zine Elevator Stories) let me know that they had nominated my short story “The Murals” as one of their two fiction submissions for the annual Best of the Net awards.
First off, it is really quite an honor and I’m very grateful. I’ve submitted my work to a number of writing awards, and even placed in a few, but it’s another thing for the editors of a publication — who read literally hundreds if not thousands of very, very good stories every year — to single out my work as among the best they published last year.
The feeling of gratitude and validation led me down a thought rabbit hole. Because I also — like so many fiction writers trying to cross the bridge from side hustle to career — put blood, sweat and tears into a novel manuscript last year. I’ve submitted it to several unpublished book contests, and it has placed in a few. I’ve sent it to many, many literary agents, with zero traction whatsoever.
I think the novel manuscript is good. My most honest beta readers who tell me when my work is ‘meh’ think it’s good. And so I’ve been frustrated by finding myself, yet again, stumped at the same point of the book publishing process. It’s enough, after five unpublished novels, to throw my hands up in the air and accept a fine life of writing thought leadership content. After all, what, ultimately, is the point of writing stories with no audience?
But that line of negative thinking is only focused on the audience I want — an audience of novel readers.
I wasn’t respecting or appreciating the audiences I had earned: The type of readers who breath life into a dizzying and diverse array of literary magazines, both online and print. Or the editors at those publications who might one day share my name or recommend me to an agent who can help make my novelist dreams come true. Or the young adult and college-age readers who will hopefully benefit from the upcoming book I co-authored guiding student-athletes on how to develop and manage their brands, now that they can profit from their name, image and likeness.
When I found out I had been nominated for Best of the Net, I felt immensely fulfilled. More than I expected. When I explored that feeling, it came down to the fact that I discovered a depth of appreciation for and gratitude to an audience of readers I had previously been viewing as a stepping stone on a march to a printed hard cover New York Times bestseller.
The lesson can probably be distilled down to a few tried-and-true cliches: Enjoy the journey. Stop and smell the roses. Take a moment to enjoy the view.
Yes, to all of those. It is immensely gratifying to have written a story that made an impact with readers.
Also as mentioned, and something that will certainly be the subject of many future posts when we get closer to the publication date, I’ve co-authored a book with University of Virginia Professor Kimberly Whitler that will be published spring 2022. Learn more about “The Athlete Brand: How to Benefit From Name, Image and Likeness.”
Lastly, The Vultures of Hogwaller — that unpublished novel manuscript I keep mentioning — advanced to the second stage of the 2021 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, which meant it finished among the Top 3% of submissions. Vultures was previously named a finalist — among the Top 5 for all entries — for the Spotlight First Novel Prize (read more here) and made the longlist for the Exeter Writing Prize (see here).
I’ve gone around the write novel -> query agents -> hear nothing -> get nowhere carousel before. So when I wrote The Vultures of Hogwaller, I decided to try some new things to amp up my pitch (and the appeal of my work) to agents. For the first time, I submitted an unpublished novel to various unpublished novel and writing award contents.
The results so far? Pretty good.
Vultures was named a finalist — among the Top 5 for all entries — for the Spotlight First Novel Prize. Read more here.
It also earned recognition on the longlist for the Exeter Writing Prize. See here.
I’ve entered a few other contests with winners to be announced later this summer and fall, so fingers crossed for more success. Honestly, I’m very confident that Vultures is a strong manuscript. The feedback from family, friends and those who barely know me but still volunteered to be beta readers has given me a lot of belief in this story. But a little recognition from industry professionals doesn’t hurt the old ego. And, more importantly, it won’t hurt with literary agents who will hopefully see the outside validation as enough reason to invest a bit of time reading my pages.
My thanks to the Spotlight First Novel Prize and Exeter Writing Prize! It’s an honor to be recognized alongside fellow authors who are out there, just like me, hustling for the opportunity to bring their creativity, blood, sweat and tears to readers.
Back in 2013 in the first weeks of my master’s in creative writing program at the University of Edinburgh, I started on a project called Happy Jack about a man with the power to know exactly what the people around him needed to be happy. The catch: He’s compelled to do whatever it takes to bring them happiness, often at great personal cost.
Everything in my mind then was NOVELNOVELNOVEL, so that’s how I wrote Happy Jack. I love the story. I think it’s actually the best plot I’ve ever devised. But it’s flawed as a novel — mostly due to my learning curve as a young writer.
The story continues to call to me to get it out in the world, but after spending the last several months writing and revising The Vultures of Hogwaller and investing energy to find an agent and get it published, I didn’t want to commit to another novel-sized effort. As it turns out, I read Save the Cat and prepared a Save the Cat beat sheet to adapt the manuscript into a screenplay back in 2017 before some “life” sprung up and waylaid my writing aspirations for a spell.
Hallelujah for the cloud, as all my beat sheet prep work was still online and my copy of Save the Cat was still on the shelf. Looking over my beat sheet, it was pretty good (go, 2017 Jay). I figured now was the time to give screenwriting a try. Less commitment than rewriting the entire novel while focusing on Vultures and I could learn a new form.
It went by pretty fast! Writing 115 pages of screenplay is a hell of a lot easier than 300+ pages of dense prose. I still need to give it a good edit, make sure those Save the Cat-modeled beats really sing, sharpen the dialogue, etc., etc., but here’s a look at the scene where Jack meets the our antogonist, Dr. Archambeau, near the end of Act 1 (Forgive the formatting! Screenplay format doesn’t copy over well):
EXT. SECLUDED DAUPHIN ISLAND BEACH – DAY
Jack is slouched in his beach chair by the van, exhausted. A ghost crab skitters near his feet.
I can’t keep this up. It’s always something. I’ve got to get further away.
The crab runs into its hole in the sand.
Yeah, exactly. Easy enough for you.
Jack looks up to see a man stumbling down the beach. He’s fat, short and ridiculously dressed in a searsucker suit, buckskin boots and a straw hat.
Can I help you?
My name is Dr. Claudius Beauregard Archambeau, and I knew your father in Vee-et-nam. I have an offer for you, Jack Hazelwood.
Dr. A hands Jack a business card.
INT. TOYOTA 4X4 VAN – DAY
Jack and Dr. A sit at a small table in the cramped cabin. Dr. A looks overheated and faint. Jack fiddles with the business card before setting it down.
Are you OK?
I have a number of conditions that contribute to my, how should I say, dashing figure. But presently, I believe a dodgy thyroid is responsible for my state of lassitude. A juice, perhaps?
Jack flips open a cooler and hands Dr. A a Capri Sun.
That’ll do. Tell me. Did your mother, sweet Joy, ever tell you how your father died?
Yeah. What do you know about it?
I was on that plane, Jack. The one that went down. I’m the only survivor.
I was saved by bar-tailed godwits.
What did you say?
Birds. Migrating birds. Birds mean land. I swam, how far I cannot say. The birds kept coming, leading me, to an island, somewhere in the South Pacific. I persevered. I learned to fish the reef. The colors of the fish, they were infinite. Octopi striped like zebras. Sea urchins pink as bubble gum and big as basketballs. Crabs in purple armor, like Samurai warriors. I ate them all. But they couldn’t satiate my loneliness. Thank God for the Japanese fisherman that finally found me.
Dr. A pauses and Jack snaps out of a hypnotized state.
Why didn’t my mom tell me about you?
Oh, I don’t think she wanted you to be haunted by your daddy’s ghost. When Joy died, I tried to find you, to offer my help. It was the least I could do after your daddy saved my life in the war. I didn’t know where to find you. Until there you were on my TV!
Look, it’s been real nice talking to you. But I’ve got a lot to do. The oil spill…
Is a monumental travesty and failure of mankind. But you haven’t heard my offer yet, Jack.’
There’s nothing I need. I’m happy with the way things are.
It looks to me like the way things are is killing you.
I’m needed here. I can’t go.
Maybe what would make you happy is a change of scenery. Learn to live in the real world again.
You don’t know what the real world would do to me…
I know what you are, Jack. You have a gift.
There are people in this world who believe in magic. You make people happy, Happy Jack. And you can learn to control it. I can teach you. Don’t waste your life out here, some maladroit hermit.
It’s safer here.
Come with me. Let me repay the debt I owe your father.
Where would we go?
The Big Easy. N’Awlins, my boy.
I’m excited to share that my short story “The Murals” was published this week by Elevator Stories, a really unique online fiction journal that publishes written and audio stories in theme-based issues. That’s right, they ask authors to record readings of their stories so you can listen to me do my best Morgan Freeman reading “The Murals” at a breezy length of 18 minutes … or save your ears and just read it.
I’m honored to be included among 10 fantastic stories in Level 2, Elevator Stories’ third release. And I’d also like to thank them for the amazing art they create to accompany their published stories (see above).
If you’re reading here, please click there and take a little time to listen or read through the issue. Thank you for supporting fiction and writers like me!
Writing a novel is fun. Getting words down on a page is easy. At least for me, it is.
The business of writing is … not as fun. Getting a novel published is … not as easy. At least for me, it isn’t.
After recently whizzing through a 95,000-word novel manuscript, the business side of the story has begun for me. It’s time (once again) to try and find an agent, who will hopefully place the manuscript with a publisher, who will hopefully publish the book inside of a year, when it will hopefully sell a million copies.
It’s a long, lonely process, and it’s where most writers fail. Sometimes because their work isn’t good enough. Sometimes because they never reached out to the right agent. Or, sometimes, because they find the perfect agent, but that agent had a bad ham sandwich for lunch and passes because the writer’s plot involved a curious Christmas ham.
Anyways, it all starts with a query (#ifykyk). When you’re like me and have next to zero connections in the publishing industry, the query is your one-page, 300-400-word lighthouse signaling “look at me, please.” Authors hope it beckons agents to port, to linger a little longer.
As the writing Twitterati would say, I #amquerying and post today to share my query. Does it make you want to read more? Want to run with the idea to a publisher and say, “Please publish this book! Now!”
Query: The Vultures of Hogwaller
Dear Mr./Ms. AGENT,
I’m seeking representation for THE VULTURES OF HOGWALLER, a 95,000-word contemporary fantasy with elements of historical fiction. The voices of Marlon James’ BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS in a modern-day LOVECRAFT COUNTRY explore legacies of family trauma and racial injustice ignited by the 1827 Monticello slave auction that ruthlessly split apart 130 “valuable negroes” following Thomas Jefferson’s death.
What if the “insufferable concomitance of slavery,” as Civil Rights icon Julian Bond once called it, wasn’t just an idea? What if it lived down the street? The Vulture Crew, as they’re known to the descendants they task with righting the injustice they’ve suffered, are the spirits of the Monticello slaves, cursed to remain as shapeshifters in the Charlottesville backwater known as Hogwaller.
Their makeshift allies — Fernandez, a middle-aged man with a mental disability; a hair dresser named Maybellina; and Malcolm, a homeless ex-convict who hides his traumatic past behind a face covered with tattoos — are running out of time to help the Vulture Crew return to Monticello, break the curse and rest in peace. Gentrification is wiping out the old Hogwaller. Shelly Schifler, the nosey old timer with a sweet front porch persona, has a ruthless plan to aim “urban renewal” at her enemies, not to mention a gang of white supremacist cousins to intimidate whoever stands in the way.
If the Vulture Crew lose their home before the curse is broken, they’ll lose their humanity by transforming permanently into black vultures. Desperation leads to Tim Harris, a white collar intellectual with a lot to learn about the difference between thinking the right things related to racial justice and doing the right things. His idealized notion of the diverse Hogwaller community comes crashing down around his pricey new condo when he’s entangled in the fight. Secrets and enemies lurk behind every neighbor’s door.
I earned a master’s in creative writing with distinction from the University of Edinburgh, and my short fiction has appeared in The Legendary, Pythia Journal, Oblong Magazine and the Eunoia Review. In my day job, I write, edit and publish as editorial director at the University of Virginia’s Darden School.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
In summer 2019, I drew up a plan to exit the 9-5 working world for a bit and return to writing fiction. In fall 2019, an idea started to come together for a book I would write when I finally followed through on that plan. In spring 2020 (with some coronavirus pandemic modifications), I made the leap, left full time work and started writing.
In fall 2020, I finished. The Vultures of Hogwaller is a completed 95,000-word urban fantasy blending magical realism and historical fiction. From multiple characters’ perspectives, it explores through-lines to the present from the 1827 Monticello slave auction that ruthlessly split apart 130 “valuable negroes” following Thomas Jefferson’s death.
Of course, done is never really done until a manuscript is picked up by an agent and publisher and then baked in their editing process before publication. So it’s DONE in the sense that I’ve written it, completed a first revision, and am now working on more revisions based on feedback from a test group of first readers.
And I’d love to share a little bit more of it. I shared a draft chapter of one character’s backstory in September, and here’s a look at the opening of the manuscript:
The Vultures of Hogwaller
By Jay Hodgkins
“Two years after this, Mr. Jefferson died. Then began our troubles. We were scattered all over the country, never to meet each other again until we meet in another world.”
— Recollections of Peter Fossett, published in the New York World, January 30, 1898
They faced Monticello, the little mountain turning green with spring. Even to their extraordinary eyes, Jefferson’s mansion was lost in the unfolding canopy of hickory, oak, maple and ash. Its legacy, though, was visible everywhere in these parts. To them, that legacy was as blood red as the dawn light reflecting off the mist that shrouded the mountain summit.
They sat on the spine of a shingled roof that topped a dreary box of a home with hardly a window to enjoy the sweeping view of the surrounding foothills. Four apartments were cramped inside, Charlottesville’s high-minded excuse for low-income housing in the ’80s. Their perch was mid-hill, just over the old, crumbling livestock auction stockyard that some said gave Hogwaller its name. Down there on the stockyard’s rusting tin roof, in The Bottom, is where the rest of their committee assembled. Their native home was just a bit further through the marsh around an ancient, dying sycamore tree, pale as a ghost on the southern bank of Moores Creek.
There were about a dozen of them perched in a row on the tenement’s roof, their dark wings spread wide to capture the sun’s rays. Nothing could interrupt this daily morning vigil. Not the police patrol cars circling in ceaseless vigil, the drag races down Franklin, the sick people stumbling out of drug houses, the strange poor people in their bric-a-brac strewn yards, the young people throwing stones at them, or the homeless people traipsing through from their tent town hidden in the woods of The Bottom.
Depending on who you were in Hogwaller – and there, by this time, were every sort of folk – you hated the endemic black vultures or, at best, found them a fittingly peculiar addition to the oddities, mysteries and eclectic ramshackle sprawl of the neighborhood real estate agents and White folks in the new duplexes had taken to calling “Upper Belmont.” A fewer number of people protected them, and a still fewer number understood their true nature.
There were folks in Hogwaller whose occupation it was to watch the vultures. Not birders, who might also delight in the red-headed house finches building nests in air vents or the cackling mockingbirds and jays, always aggrieved by something. These people watched these specific black vultures, all 130 of them, never more, never less. They watched them on the rooftops of Hogwaller every morning, on piles of garbage on trash collection days, and on the mounds of sand and gravel in the lot by the stockyard.
On this cold morning, just after dawn, the vulture watchers sit on a porch across the street, wrapped in blankets, also looking toward Monticello through the vulture silhouettes, each a partial eclipse of the rising sun. Together, they share this Hogwaller hillside draped in the shadow of Monticello and 200 years of its history.
At first glance, the black vultures, now rising from the shingled rooftop on an updraft of air quickly warming in the bright sun, has naught to do with Monticello’s legacy.
At first glance, the vultures were vultures. Coragyps atratus. Vulture-raven dressed in black. A disliked, disregarded species, existing on the fringes of human activity, feeding off the scraps, grunting and hissing to protect what little they possess. They were scavengers, not often credited for the benefits they provide to society, cleaning streets and forests of carrion that otherwise would spread disease to humans and pets alike. They were the only species of New World vulture to live and hunt in large family groups, capable of working together toward such ends as killing livestock, say a baby calf by pecking its eyes until it collapses in shock.
At first glance, it would appear Hogwaller was the perfect confluence of climate, habitat and opportunity for a committee to become so large and bold. Lowland marsh speckled with old forest. A reliable wind down the Rivanna River gorge to use for whipping up into a kettle over the foothills of the Appalachians. A community too bogged down with the rigors of human life to lock up its trash tight.
At first glance, to the old timers in the neighborhood who remembered the livestock wallowing down in the marsh off Moores Creek at the stockyard, it seemed the vultures had arrived with appetites whetted for a chance at the calves auctioned off weekly from 1947 til the last gavel was dropped in 2012. Now some years later, it seemed perhaps they stayed in the bird-brained hope the calves – tasty shit and tastier entrails – would return.
One of the vultures spins out of its kettle to ride down the edges of the updraft into The Bottom. It lands on the rusting tin roof of the old stockyard before spreading its wings to glide lightly down to Franklin Street. There, it begins to investigate the flattened carcass of a green frog run over in the night. There isn’t much left to it, but enough entrails to make it worth the effort to pick through. A pair of cats lounging in the doorway of the abandoned stockyard look on in lazy contempt.
The vulture invests itself in its meal so much that it does not hear the car accelerating down Franklin toward it. It never sees the black Ford Escort or the woman with short, dark hair smiling as she bears down. It never hears the laugh of glee she belches out when she feels the bump of the vulture’s body and sees the tufts of feathers swirling in the air as she speeds off.
The dead vulture has a name. Miles. Miles has suffered from the cruelty of the human race for a long time before this moment. Now, Miles is dead.
At first glance.
There’s a lot of pain and loss in the world right now, and this is a post about losing my dog — the late, the great Uli Mclovin Hodgkins aka Uli Bear aka Uli the Grey aka Uli Booli. So, yes, writing is my therapy, and this will undoubtedly involve some self-indulgent self-therapy, but if you stick with me, I will try to spin a story at least somewhat worthy of my incredible companion for the last 13 years.
I have a friend who recently became a father. I saw him for the first time in several years earlier this month and my first question was: “What does it feel like, being a dad?”
Predictably, he lit up with a smile. He’s Brazilian, and English is his second language, so he worked hard to find the words. He said, “I can’t describe it. It is love, but it is a totally different kind of love I didn’t know existed before.”
I understand completely. Though I don’t have a child and so don’t know that unique love, I think it is a perfect analogy for the strange, possibly irrational love many dog owners feel for their dogs. I loved Uli in a way I didn’t know love existed before having her in my life.
Uli wasn’t easy. In fact, she’d be better described as many different stages of difficult. Perhaps with one exception where our roles reversed, but more on that in a minute.
There was young Uli, rescued from the Charlottesville SPCA in 2007 at two years old with virtually no training. Wild, with limitless energy, incredible speed and an insatiable love for running away. She barked at everything that moved. If a door was left open even a crack, she was out of it. She would probe fences for weaknesses, and so we dubbed her “The Velociraptor.” Escape, and the game would be afoot — chase me, get close, too slow, try again.
Then there was the growing separation anxiety as she got older. Suddenly, this dog you could leave out in the house for hours with no consequence (except the occassional loaf of bread pirated from a counter top … she LOVED bread!) turned into a tornado of destruction. At first, shoes and remote controls, then chunks of door and wall chewed and scratched out. She once bent a sturdy metal crate into a pretzel trying to escape because we put her in this usually safe space in someone else’s house. She snapped her canine tooth in Chicago and we had to schedule a root canal in Madison, Wisconsin. She once ate through an ENTIRE FRONT DOOR (glass panels and wood frame) when I left the house for an hour. Why? She just wanted to be in the front yard. I found her lying in the grass looking pleased as punch, somehow just a tiny bit of blood on her fur. Uli 1, Door 0.
Then there was old Uli. Very mellow. Very sage. I could even finally let her off leash to trot along beside me or, often, just behind. A place the young Uli would have NEVER accepted. But like all old things, age caught her. She dislocated her hip in November 2019 and staged a miraculous recovery… miraculous but requiring an immense amount of human effort to help pull off. There was Cushing’s Disease. Waking up in the middle of the night for emergency potty breaks. Pills. So many pills. Extra vet visits. Constant vigilance to make sure she didn’t slip and fall on our hardwood floors or try to take the stairs on her own. (Short aside…when she was still in a VERY precarious state after her hip injury, she somehow escaped out of her overnight kennel at the vet’s, made it down a staircase, helped herself to a vast store of prescription dog food, and made it back up the stairs. The vet staff told us they watched it all on video the next day. This, in a nutshell, was Uli. Both charming and vexing in her determination).
The point is, like all of us, she aged, and age is hard. Very hard. Both on those experiencing it and their caretakers.
But as I reflect on all these stages of Uli, it’s very clear to me how much credit she deserves in my personal growth as an adult.
Let’s just say I’m not perfect. I’m stubborn. I am not inclined to change. Where humans have failed to lead me to change they sought or needed from me, Uli’s will and very nature as a dog gave me no choice. When I wanted to be selfish and travel or do whatever I wanted to do, which I’m great at doing over human objections, Uli said, “Sorry. You have to take care of me. Figure something out. Because if you don’t, I’ll either destroy your house or I’ll die. Your choice. By the way, I love you no matter what.”
Young Uli taught me patience and how to better regulate my emotions (anger and frustration, usually, but others, too). Anxious Uli taught me how to change and adapt and problem solve, because sometimes life throws you a curve ball and you just have to figure it out. Old Uli taught me to give of myself in a way I wasn’t always sure I had in me. Selflessness over selfishness, and then the discovery that selflessness is actually a gift to yourself and your beneficiary.
To walk the trail with a dog through its life is to sign on for a series of very real life challenges. I’m so grateful for the growth. I never expected it.
I don’t think anyone needs a lesson on the value of a dog as a companion. It’s basically THE reason people choose to bring a dog into their life.
But Uli’s gift of companionship diverged from the usual at a very important time.
My ex-wife, Carrie, and I went through a very difficult period that really spanned a number of years, resulted in a yearlong separation and ultimately divorce. I don’t think Carrie or I realized it was happening at first, but when we began to become more distant in Scotland, Uli was my constant walking companion. I had not taken up hiking as a serious pastime at that point, but with no yard, her need to go out for walks was an entre. We started walking…further and further and further. I’d estimate we covered 2,000 miles in 14 months. Every inch of Edinburgh and more. She kept me occupied and fulfilled at what might have otherwise been a lonely time.
Uli settled into an unusual era of peace and tranquility when we moved into our new home in Charlottesville in 2015. She was 10. She had a wireless fence and could roam the yard all day, whether we were home or not. I call this her “Bilbo Baggins phase,” when she had come home to the Shire from life’s great adventures and contented herself ruminating upon them.
When Carrie moved out, Uli was, with no exaggeration, my rock. I chose to suffer that very difficult year of separation telling almost no one what was happening. I made the mistake of not calling on the people in my corner. But I never felt alone, because on my worst days, Uli with some supernatural instinct would insist on lying as close to me as possible. She was a constant companion at my side. She spent countless hours lounging in her bed on the porch next to me while I read books. On weekends that I dreaded for being alone and having nothing to do, she gave us something to do in the form of so many great walks in the mountains, over rocks, through streams. The Blue Ridge Mountains were our playground, and these were beautiful times of solitude within the healing power of nature that she loved as much as I had learned to.
Not long after our divorce and when I entered into a new relationship, Uli started to slow down. It was probably coincidence, of course, but it felt like she knew she could relax. Her work was done. She had given back and carried me at the only time in my life I’ve ever felt like I needed carrying.
On Saying Goodbye
Boy, this part’s hard. It feels too cliche to boil this part down into life lessons, but as I’ve gotten older and more cynical and the distractions of and weight of the world have led me to generally feel less, it was a rare gift to have a moment where I was so intensely present and so immensely overwhelmed with feeling.
Uli died on September 11, 2020, almost 13 years after she came into our lives. Though Carrie and I divorced, we remained civil through the process and emerged on friendly terms. Because of our mutual desire to co-parent Uli, she became a final fragment of family that reminded us to be as kind as we could to each other.
And so Carrie and I came together on a grassy patch under a big pine tree behind the wonderful Georgetown Veterinary Hospital for one last visit with her. She had developed pancreatitis and wasn’t responding well. She had stopped eating and drinking. She made it very clear it was time.
She was mildly sedated when she was brought out to us, and I wasn’t sure how aware she was that we were there. It didn’t matter. It felt good to touch her one last time and feel her breathing.
But Uli loved something so dearly in the years Carrie and I were together. She loved what we called “the double pet.” We would chant “double pet, double pet,” and she would wriggle and squirm up the bed to get within our reach and lavish in four hands scratching and petting her entire body. We remembered “the double pet,” and started to scratch her ears and neck, side and rump, together while singing “double pet, double pet.”
Uli opened her eyes. She looked at us both. She smiled. As if to confirm it wasn’t just some reaction of the muscles, she lifted her head a bit, set it back down, and smiled again, that silly pit bull grin. We broke. We laughed and cried and dripped snot and made strange noises with no volume control because it was just too much. Too perfect. A perfect goodbye. Uli closed her eyes and went back to sleep. We called the vet down. Dr. Donald Peppard isn’t just the guy who gives your dog medicine and sends her on her way. He’s the guy who knows your dog, who your dog is actually excited to come see, who tells you because he’s been her vet for years and knows how precocious she is that it’s really sad to see her like this, and he means it because there are tears in his eyes.
Dr. Peppard sat with us for a good while and talked, then he gave her the drugs that would stop her heart. As he injected the drugs and felt for her heartbeat, Uli’s eyes opened wide and she looked at me. Right in my eyes. I don’t know what she saw, or if she saw. But that moment will endure in my mind and it was another of her gifts.
Carrie and I lingered around for hours at the spot after Uli was taken away. Ever the planner, Carrie had bought a beer from Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont that was made in honor of their passed brewery dog, Damon. We got to stay in that moment, remembering her greatest adventures, without letting go of it too quickly. We could do that thanks to the work Uli had helped us do being OK around each other, and the act of unity itself honored her legacy.
Life has a sense of humor when you’re open to observing it. The first song on the radio as I drove home was George Michael’s “I’m Never Gonna Dance Again.” So cheesy, it deserved a laugh, but it felt wonderful to sing. The second song, the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” Possibly my favorite song about time and life marching forward.
I got home and reminisced with Desiree, who has been an incredible dog stepmom and bore much of the weight of caring for Uli in her old age. She let me stay in the moment a bit longer, because I wasn’t ready to start the process of “moving forward” yet. But time does that for us. A couple of whiskeys and fond memories later, I was falling asleep after an emotionally draining day. The morning came. There was Bella the dachshund to let out. Skye the weimaraner to take for his walk. All pushing me forward, out of that moment, because that is how our experience of time works.
But is “forward, ever forward” how we experience time? Exclusively, anyway? I had the distinct, vivid impression in my last visit with Uli and into the night that I was everywhere with her at once. I had memories of her in moments I had completely forgotten ever happened. I relived acutely the hard work of caring for her these past few months. I remembered her first day with us in her forever home. The memories were literally rushing over me, like her life was flashing before my eyes. All I can say is that this felt very real to me, and I hope it’s a shred believable.
I felt, for at least a short while, that I existed in all of those moments with her, that they were happening now, all at the same time. If you’ve ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” or know the story of Dr. Manhattan from “The Watchmen,” I’m not the first person to have felt time at least could be experienced this way. It’s a theory rooted in Einstein and the concept of spacetime.
I remember a day in a lit criticism class while getting my master’s in Edinburgh where we were debating “Slaughterhouse Five.” The teacher argued vigorously that Vonnegut was being satirical in his depiction of a race of aliens experiencing time as one continuous spaghetti string of then, now, forever and always, in which they could look to and experience various points of their choosing. The conventional view is Vonnegut was poking at our human tendency for wishful thinking. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just look at the nice parts of time, and never look at the bad.”
I disagreed with the teacher just as vigorously. You’d have to ask Vonnegut, but I think he was commenting on the inevitability of good and bad in our existence and our ability to shrink the space and time of the bad or expand the space and time of the good through the one true element of control we have over reality … our perspective.
Either way, I went home after that class to be greeted, as I was nearly every day for 13 years, by an overjoyed Uli whose only conception of time was that any time I was gone was too long. And its end always worthy of celebration.
Thank you to everyone in my life who gave Uli so much love over the years, helped take care of her, watch her, let her crash their parties and get into their hearts.
Thank you, Uli. It’s hard to say goodbye.