Saturday, December 20, 2008

Marley & Me

I just finished reading Marley and Me last night. I was surprised to learn a week ago that Hollywood made this book into a movie. I hope the movie has done the book justice. If you're looking for an easy and heartfelt read, this should be on your bookstore shopping list. It is the kind of story where you crawl up to a fireplace with a mug of hot chocolate and just read away. It's a true story about a married couple who, over time, grow in their lives together, have kids, change jobs, move homes, etc., all while caring for their hyper (destructive) yellow lab. That is quite a simplistic description of the book, but the story is rich in heart.

In the last few pages of the book, John Grogan (the author) writes a touching tribute (he is a newspaper columnist) to Marley. This particular paragraph in the book made an impression on me and took my mind back to a conversation I had had earlier in the morning. The conversation was with an Afghan man that is a worker here on Bagram - name withheld. I see him several times a week. He has always been pleasant, quiet, and shy. Being that it was only he and I in my office this morning, I felt weird amidst the silence. So, I broached a conversation and my mouth fell agape the more we talked.

The man - I'll call him Farrukh - lives 50 miles from here. Big deal, right? Well, hold your horses. Afghanistan's roads aren't exactly the middle east version of the German autobahn, nor is it the next Dubai in terms of roadways and building construction. It is primitive in most aspects, and to travel 50 miles here is a bit of a journey. Next, consider the Afghans are not carpooling in the far left "2-4 person minimum" lane in a 3 year old SUV. If not by bus, they arrive in cattle trucks or open bed trailers, packed in, much like sardines. Not pleasant at any time of the year, but through rain, snow, and sleet they come for work. Once they arrive here, and I can't go into any details, but they wait several hours to gain entry to this base. I can't describe entry procedures at all, but I'm sure you've heard the term "hurry up and wait!".

Farrukh wakes at 5 am and doesn't start his work until 9 or, sometimes, 10am. He's not waking and driving to the gym for a morning run, standing in line at Starbucks for his coffee, or eating his bagel while the latest news plays in the background. He is just simply trying to physically get to work. That takes 4-5 hours. Next, he works all day - nothing unusual there - but consider that many of the local Afghans working here are performing arduous and laborious work: carving trenches with pick axes, digging and shoveling, road construction, etc. I haven't always seen the most modern technology being provided to these people to do the work either. When I've wondered aloud, "Why are they doing it that way?" or "Isn't there a better way to do that?", other people have suggested that the more simplistic the work methods, the more people we employ. I'm all for employing as much of the local population as possible, but I find it disturbing to see 5 Afghans struggling to move a wheel barrel of stones when a back hoe could do the same thing and in 2 minutes.

At the end of the day, Farrukh must turn around and repeat everything as he prepares to return home. He gets to sleep around 10pm, he says. That places him with 7 hours of sleep - good enough - but what an event his every day is. The average pay of an Afghan is $2.00 a day. I'd love to think we pay them more than the average and I believe we do, but I also know, for sure, that nobody is getting rich. All said, Farrukh seems happy that he has a job, a means to support his family. He is pleasant and kind. He is thankful for what he has.

So, here is the John Grogan paragraph. After you read it, you will understand why my thoughts trailed back to Farrukh:

It was an amazing concept that I was only now, in the wake of his death, fully absorbing: Marley as a mentor. As teacher and role model. Was it possible for a dog - any dog, but especially a nutty, wildly uncontrollable one like ours - to point humans to the things that really mattered in life? I believed it was. Loyalty. Courage. Devotion. Simplicity. Joy. And the things that did not matter, too. A dog has no use for fancy cars or big homes or designer clothes. Status symbols mean nothing to him. A waterlogged stick will do just fine. A dog judges others not by their color or creed or class but by who they are inside. A dog doesn't care if you are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his. It was really quite simple, and yet we humans, so much wiser and more sophisticated, have always had trouble figuring out what really counts and what does not. As I wrote that farewell column to Marley, I realized it was all right there in front of us, if only we opened our eyes. Sometimes it took a dog with bad breath, worse manners, and pure intentions to help us see.

My own nearly 12 year old dog would be jealous if I said I hoped to be like Marley, to treat and appreciate others like Marley did, to love others like Marley did. My dog has been loyal and devoted through the years, traveling with me across the US, Europe, anywhere else I dragged him and always by my side. In his old age he has slowed a bit, lost some hearing and eyesight, developed a heart problem, and has made it through three back surgeries all with a tenacity and drive to be admired. His sole purpose? To love. And, to steal the words of John Grogan again, "Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things - a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty."

I guess the point I am making is that we don't need a million things or the "perfect" life to be happy. All things are relative, "perfect" is relative. Farrukh finds his happiness and purpose in doing things that most of us would never choose to do. He does them because he has to, but he seems to maintain a joy about himself. We so often forget the simplest of things, and that's where Marley came in. Life really is about the simple joys. They are there for our taking.

In closing, what a fine example Marley was (and my own dog) of what being human is all about. I know - a bit of anthropomorphism on my part, but isn't that the whole point? How is it that it turns out something so not human ends up being the shining example of humanity itself?

We should all be so lucky to have known or had our own version of Marley. Imagine, the things we can become....


scsoldiersangel said...

Wonderful blog and so very true. I sent a medic in Iraq the book and he said it was the 1st book he read for enjoyment in 19 years. May I share your blog post with him?
The Afghan people have so little but, you still see smiles.
Keep smiling! I will hug my dog, TJ, a little harder tonight for you! ;)

brat said...

All true of course! Dogs have the wisdom to teach us all so much - if we are open to the learning..

Am so glad I have found your site. Have signed on to follow you now ;)

Stay safe and thank YOU for your service.