January 31, 2014

I could tell that something was on Smut’s mind. He was slouched in his easy chair and uncharacteristically, he had let his Cuban cigar burn out and go unsmoked. Characteristically, though, he was deep into my bottle of good Scotch whisky, I observed with regret. When he saw me come into his presence, he gave me a doleful look.

Smut is my old black Labrador retriever. In certain ways he is a remarkably intelligent dog, even by human standards. He has contributed a great many ideas and discoveries to the world of particle physics, and he’s one of the best scientific thinkers alive. In other ways, though, he is just an annoying old dog. While he has excellent taste in Scotch whisky, he drinks it to excess as my bank balance proves. He favors the most expensive cigars, and constantly begs me to take him to the tobacco store and buy him more of them.

He is a bit of a fop. He likes silk, and he coaxed me into getting several smoking jackets tailored for him from good silk cloth. Most dogs don’t like hats. My other black Lab, Mischief, will shake off a hat in seconds if you can get one on her in the first place. But inside the house and in warm weather, Smut likes to wear a fez decorated with fine needlework. In cold weather he wears a tarboosh.

Smut likes to take me on long walks through the fields and woods while talking to me about dog things: How a raccoon’s bones crunch when he catches one by the neck and shakes it to death, how to differentiate among the scat of various animals, and how exhilarating it is to smell a bitch in heat.

But I’m digressing. Something was wrong with the old Lab. “Smut, you old mongrel,” I said fondly, “you look a little down in the dumps, and a bit drunk. What’s wrong?” I could tell, though, that whatever was wrong, it wasn’t wrong enough that he put down the glass of whisky.

After a long swallow of my whisky, he looked at me with a pained expression and hesitated before answering. “We need to have a talk about the future,” he said. “I’m getting old, and have lived much longer than all my friends of the same age. Why, my best friend, Dale, Jr., was only a couple of years older, and he’s been gone for over five years now. So I know I don’t have much time left.”

“Aw, Smut,” I replied, “you’re going to live forever, you old dog. Don’t think about that; it’s depressing you.”

“I’m not depressed,” he said. “I’m thinking about you. I’m afraid you won’t be able to deal with my demise, and I want to plan for the time that I’m not with you anymore.”

“Now you’re making me feel sad, Smut,” I told him.

“Good. I’ve been thinking about what to do when the time comes to put me down” He settled back in his chair and took a small sip of the whisky. “I’m going to tell you my plans now, but I’ve written them so you won’t forget anything. Your lawyer has a copy of my request and will give it to you when appropriate.”

“What? You’ve written a last request? You gave it to my lawyer?”

“Yes, so you won’t forget, that’s all.”

I thought he probably wants me to bury him with his favorite toys, and maybe put his name on a grave marker. “Okay, tell me what you want, Smut.”

“I want a proper memorial service. Going out is a big thing. First, save one of my legs to be cremated in the normal way. Then build a raft, pile it with kindling and other combustibles and tie it to the end of the pier. Invite all my friends, and even Mischief, I suppose, to gather on the end of the pier. You be careful not to slip! Lay my body on the raft, say some mumbo-jumbo words you humans say at this kind of event, set it afire, and push it out into the Neuse River. As I’m floating to Valhalla, I’m sure you’ll all be pretty choked up because of how great a loss to the world my death will be. But you can survive!”

“You’re not a Viking, Smut! This is just silly, you over-dramatic old cur! And why do you want one of your legs to be cremated?”

Another swallow of whisky! “Well, I like Viking culture and pageantry. Please honor my wishes! Oh, by the way, I’ve written a news release about my death that I want you to send to all the particle-physics journals. I know you would think of that, but I wanted to be sure it’s accurate. Sometimes you don’t get the facts right, you know. Not criticizing; just sayin’!”

After that insulting statement from the old canine, I was determined to rattle him a bit. “I was just going to bury you in the backyard, like most people do when their dogs die. Maybe put a plastic hot dog or a dead raccoon on a stick as a grave marker.”

Smut’s feelings clearly were hurt. “That is so thoughtless,” he said tearfully. “I thought we were close friends. A friend would honor his friend’s last wishes.”

I felt a little bad about saying that. “I guess it was thoughtless; I wasn’t thinking. Okay, I’ll feel pretty foolish, but I will do what you want.” Once he’s gone he won’t know that I didn’t do all the crazy stuff he’s telling me.

“I’m glad to hear you say that, because I want you to carry out the rest of my request.”

“And what’s that, old dog?”

“Well, when you have my leg cremated, please have the ashes put into an urn shaped and decorated like my favorite fez. Seal it well, because it’s going to get shaken about in its travels, and I don’t want my ashes to fall out.”

“Do you have any idea what that will cost, you silly mutt?”

“But you said that you will do what I want!” He looked so pitiful, I had to make him feel good.

“Okay, okay. I will. Sorry. But what do you mean about the urn getting shaken while traveling? Where is it going?”

“Well, with you, of course!”

“What? I don’t understand.”

“We’re such good friends and so close, that I know you can’t bear to be apart from me, even when I’m gone. So to make you feel better about your loss, I want you to carry my urn with you wherever you go.

“You know how I like to ride in the car, so you can sit me in the front passenger seat whenever you travel somewhere — don’t forget to use the seatbelt — and hold my urn out the window occasionally so I can feel the wind. You can imagine my ears flopping around; that will cheer you!

“You can keep me in your briefcase when you’re at meetings, or show my urn to your friends and colleagues. That will be a good conversation starter! At home, every night you can put my best smoking jacket around my urn and set it in my favorite chair, pour a glass of Scotch for me and light a cigar. I know that will comfort you immensely!”

Yeah, I thought, I’m going to show the urn to my friends and colleagues. If that kind of conversation starts, it will end with me being committed. That dog had better live until I’m senile, because senility is the only thing that will make me carry a dog’s ashes around with me. “Have you gone to la la land, dog? I’m not going to do that!”

“But you promised, and I know you will keep your promise! And one last thing: Each night when we go to bed, place my urn on the soft pillow next to yours, and pull the covers up around it. Don’t let me get cold!”

We go to bed? We? Only in your dreams, Smut. Now if I can just get that image out of my mind. Maybe a big glass of Scotch whisky will do it. If there’s any left.



January 16, 2014

I was working in the yard, trying to put a new blade-drive belt on my lawnmower, when Mischief ran up to me and said, “There’s something wrong with Smut!” Mischief is my frenetic black Lab, and Smut is my calm old black Lab.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, alarmed. Smut is 14 years old and has been through two cancer surgeries. His hold on life is becoming tenuous.

Mischief was jumping up and down all around me, trying to convey urgency. “He’s acting very upset and disturbed,” she said. “He might be having a stroke!”

She turned and took off quickly the way she had come, and I followed, praying that Smut was not having a stroke. We found him at the edge of a field where he often went to read and think about particle physics. His smoking jacket was unbelted and hanging open, and his fez sat at an unstable angle. He was pacing back and forth quickly, clearly deeply concerned about something.

“What’s wrong, Smut?” I asked, hoping he could answer me rationally. But he seemed not to hear me, and he didn’t acknowledge my presence.

Mischief quickly barked at him, telling him to snap out of it and talk to us. Smut stopped his pacing, looked at us, and grumbled, “Nothing. Nothing. Just reading, that’s all.” But I could tell that it certainly wasn’t all.

“Are you sick, Smut?” I asked. “Do you not feel well? Do we need to go to the vet?”

Looking resigned to having to interact with Mischief and me, Smut settled back on his haunches, pulled his pipe out of his pocket along with a pouch containing tobacco—or something—and after filling the bowl, tamping it down, and lighting the pipe with a match he found in his other pocket, he took a slow drag on the pipe and said, “I’m just a little upset about something I read, that’s all.”

Relieved that Smut wasn’t suffering from a physical ailment, I asked with sarcasm, “Oh, is there another conundrum in the world of particle physics?” I expected a lengthy discourse on some inconsistency in the way quarks react to mesons, or something like that.

“No,” he replied, “I decided to take a break from particle physics and read a newspaper. It was a story in your latest edition of the Wall Street Journal that bothered me.”

“What was it in the Journal that upset you so much, Smut?”

Smut took another puff on his pipe, looked at Mischief, then at me, and began. “Well, you know how you like to share that really delicious Stilton cheese and fine port wine with Mischief and me?”

I don’t like to share it with them. It’s just that they’re always begging and trying to grab it from me, so I usually give in and let them have a taste. “I love the taste of that cheese, and it goes so well with the port I lap up. When you share that with us, I feel a special friendship for you,” Smut continued.

“Save the flattery and get on with it, Smut,” I told him, sensing that his fawning behavior was leading to something I wouldn’t like.

“The story in the Journal said that import prices are going up as high as fifteen percent in 2014,” he reported with sadness. “I’m afraid as a result you won’t buy as much Stilton and port as we, I mean, you like!”

“Oh, no!” Mischief interjected.

“You’re absolutely correct, Smut,” I said. “That stuff is high enough already. I don’t have the money to spend on that kind of luxury, especially now the prices are going up.”

After a furtive look at Mischief, Smut turned to me and asked, “Could you perhaps get a second job? I hear McDonald’s is hiring.”

I should not indulge those dogs.


January 4, 2014

Smut, my black Lab, woke me up about 4 AM New Year’s Eve. “I need to go to South Dakota,” he said. “Will you get up and drive me there now?”

“What? You silly dog, I’m not going to drive you to South Dakota or anywhere else. Go to sleep!”

“I have to go NOW!” Smut barked at me. “It’s urgent! LUX needs me!”

“What are you talking about, Smut? What is LUX? No, I don’t want to know. Just let me go back to sleep.” I shoved him away from the bed with my foot and pulled the covers over my head. “Just get out!”

“This is not debatable,” Smut said imperatively. “CMS contacted me about a half-hour ago and said I have to help LUX!”

I was awake now, without any chance of getting back to sleep. I got out of bed grudgingly, went to the kitchen and turned on the coffee pot. While the coffee was brewing, I told Smut to go to the living room and sit. He did, pulling his smoking jacket around him tightly, and straightening his fez, but he looked irritated.

“From the beginning now, tell me what you’re talking about,” I directed.

“CMS—that’s the Canine Message Service—barked me up to tell me that LUX is having trouble with an experiment, and they can’t find a WIMP, so they need me ASAP.”

“Wait, Canine Message Service did what? Barked you up?”

“That’s not important,” he said. “What’s important is that I need to go to South Dakota!”

“What is LUX? It can’t find what?”

“LUX is the Large Underground Xenon experiment in the Black Hills,” Smut explained. “To find dark matter, they buried a tank filled with liquid xenon surrounded by rock and a tank of water, all a mile underground. The only thing that gets through to the xenon tank will be WIMPs, weakly interacting massive particles. But they can’t detect any.”

“Maybe they aren’t there,” I remarked, pleased with myself for offering a solution to his physics problem.

“You silly human,” Smut said in an exasperated tone. “Of course they may not be there, but if they are and the experiment’s not set up right, we won’t know, will we? Oh, the coffee’s ready, by the way. Will you get me a cup with cream?”

When I returned with the coffee, one with cream and one black, I told Smut, “Well, we’re not going to South Dakota. The Black Hills are almost 2,000 miles from here.”

“Is that very far,” Smut asked. “Will we be back for supper?”

“No, because we’re not going,” I answered.

Just then, I heard the dogs down the road barking loudly.

“Never mind, Smut said,” CMS just let me know that LUX discovered the error in their experiment. They’ll reconfigure it and try again, so we don’t have to go to South Dakota this year.” He poured himself a dram of my scotch whisky, reached for his meerschaum pipe, and leaned back in his chair, no longer concerned about LUX and WIMPs, having received the message from CMS.

Smut licked his lips and asked, “What are you fixing for breakfast, then? Bacon?”

As I stared at the old black dog—dark matter, to be sure—through sleep-deprived eyes, it occurred to me that he may have detected a wimp after all: me.


December 29, 2013

My black Lab Smut walked out on the pier where I was fishing and watched me for a moment, then asked, “If you catch a fish, what will you do with it?”

“I’ll scale it, clean it, filet it, dredge it in cornmeal, and fry it for supper,” I said.

“Well, if you catch two fish, I don’t mind you doing that with the second one,” Smut said, “but don’t cook mine. And don’t bother scaling it or cleaning it either, please.” In Smut’s mind, if I only caught one fish, it would be his.

“You mean,” I asked, “if I catch a fish for you, you don’t want me to cook it?”

“No,” Smut said, “I want it for something else.”

“Well, I’m not having any luck. Let’s go back to the house.” I began gathering my gear to head back.

“You have no patience,” Smut observed. “You’ve only been at it for three or four hours. I really need a fish!”

“Smut, if you have more patience than I do, you’re welcome to use the gear and catch a fish yourself,” I told him. But the lazy old dog ignored my offer and followed me back to the house.

When we were settled inside, I with my cup of hot coffee, and Smut with his glass of Scotch whisky, we went to the living room. Smut sat in his favorite easy chair, placed the whisky on an end table, reached over to the humidor and pulled out a Cuban cigar. I know: it’s illegal to have them, but Smut has habits that must be satisfied.

“Mind if I smoke,” he said, not so much as a question but an announcement.

“You know I do,” I replied, “but that never stops you.”

He ignored me, sipped some whisky, and lit up. He was the figure of sophistication and erudition in his red fez and burgundy smoking jacket, and his Advanced Particle Physics text on the table beside him.

“Smut,” I said, “You didn’t want me to cook you a fish! I’ve never known you to turn down food. What do you want a fish for?”

“Well, if you must know, I want to get a date.”

“So? What’s that got to do with fish?”

“A fish will help me attract a date,” he said.

“Don’t understand, Smut. How will a fish help you attract a date?”

“Fish don’t reach their full potential until they’ve been dead on the beach under the sun for a while,” he replied didactically. “Then they become aphrodisiacs, you see.”

“They become rotten and disgusting,” I pointed out. “Why do you think they become aphrodisiacs?”

After taking a puff of his cigar, he told me, “When they’re just right, the aroma is overpowering.”

“Can’t argue with that, dog.”

“Then I can roll on it and get all smelled up. Female dogs find it extremely sexy and appealing. Don’t expect me home all night when I go out on my date.” He settled back in his chair looking expectantly pleased with himself.

“If you roll on a rotten fish, I don’t want you home that night. Be sure to swim around in the river for a while before you come back to the house. And I won’t let you in without giving you a bath, you disgusting dog.”

With an expression of consternation on his face, Smut pointed his cigar at me and said, “You’re criticizing my smell of choice? When you put on the stuff you use sometimes, I’m repulsed at the rank smell. It’s a wonder you don’t run women off with that stuff.”

I don’t much like the smell of what I use either, but the ads say it really attracts women. I guess what passes as cologne for men or dogs leaves a lot to be desired. But at least I don’t roll in mine.


December 13, 2013

Mischief and I took a walk this afternoon. It was cold, wet and entirely uncomfortable, the kind of day Mischief favors. She is a Labrador retriever, and revels in cold weather, and finds the cold water of the Neuse River in December to be pleasant.

“Let’s go in the house,” I suggested after about ten minutes.

“Come on, let’s stay out a while,” she responded. “I haven’t identified all the new smells here since I returned from Greenville. Why did you dump us there last week?” she asked.

“Will and I wanted to eat oysters at home without your friend Smut competing with us for every one of them, so we left both of you in Greenville for a couple of days. But then I had the accident, and couldn’t fetch you for a few days.”

“Oh, yes, the accident,” she replied. “You fell off a pier and bumped your head, as if humans don’t do that every day. And except for a little cosmetic deterioration, you don’t look bad. You weren’t pretty to begin with. So don’t start again. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but I—and probably everyone you’ve talked to over the past week—am fatigued at your constant talk about ‘the accident.’ Please just shut up about it. It’s over.”

“Point taken, Mischief,” I replied, a little annoyed that she would be so blunt. My human friends, of course, are too polite to tell me to shut up, even though they should, according to Mischief.

We walked a bit more, then I told her that I was cold and was going back to the house. “You can stay out by yourself,” I said.

“Okay, we’ll go back,” she said, sulking. “Guess we’d better check on Smut, anyway. No telling what he’s gotten into.”

Smut is my other lab, a sneaky and resourceful old dog who is a brilliant particle physicist, but in all other ways just a typical old lab.

As we entered the living room, I saw Smut scoot through the kitchen door and quickly flop into his easy chair. His fez was askew, and his smoking jacket was awry, but the look on his face was lazy and unconcerned.

“What are you up to, you old mutt,” I asked with acid suspicion.

“I was just getting some water,” he replied. “Why do you look so suspicious?”

“Because I know your tricks,” I said.

While Smut straightened his fez and adjusted his jacket, I looked in the kitchen. There on the floor in front of the refrigerator was a bone—all that was left of half a country ham.

I angrily returned to the living room and found Smut leaning back comfortably in his chair, legs crossed, puffing on a cigar, a glass of my 16-year-old Lagavulin in his other paw.

“You ate my country ham, you nasty dog,” I shouted at Smut. “That was going to be breakfast for days to come, and it’s gone! No grits and country ham with red-eye gravy! No country ham biscuits! No eggs and country ham!”

While he finished a swallow of whisky and exhaled a puff of smoke, Smut said calmly, “Well, you know I don’t like grits. And that ham was too salty for you.”

“But you didn’t leave me any,” Mischief whined at him.

Why can’t Smut just stick his tail between his legs and hang his head in shame like other dogs, I thought.


November 9, 2013

Yesterday Smut, my black lab, asked me why people are arguing about Obamacare. “Smut,” I replied, “you’re a dog. It’s a complicated issue that you might not understand.”

We had just finished a long walk in the fields behind my house. Smut had donned his smoking jacket and was relaxing in his favorite easy chair, an unlit cigar in one paw, and an empty glass in another, clearly signaling that he wanted me to pour him a shot of Scotch whisky and give him a light.



After I had, with mild disgust, reinforced his bad habits, he crossed his hind legs, leaned back in the chair, puffed his cigar and took a sip of the whisky. “I am a dog,” he said, “and the subject may be complicated, but don’t forget that you’ve often depended on me to set you straight when you’ve been faced with a sticky problem for which you couldn’t find a solution. So humor me and answer my question, please.” It’s not easy living with a precocious dog.

“Well, Smut, it’s like this,” I told him. “Congress, both houses of which were controlled by the Democratic Party, passed a healthcare act in 2010 that contains over 11,000 pages that would create a stack of paper 3 feet tall. No one in Congress read it before voting on it. The Senate vote was held by the Senate leadership prematurely Christmas Eve 2009 in order to give the opposing party little notice or time to mount substantial opposition. The House then concurred in 2010, after the Speaker said that the House needed to pass the bill so they could know what was in it, and then the president signed the bill into law. The major provisions of the law take effect in 2014.”

“That seems to have been a rather sneaky way to pass a law,” Smut observed. “What is the objection to it?”

“Well, for one thing, it appears that health care for most middle-class Americans under the AFA will cost more than under the old system, which was really expensive. Another objection is that anyone who is eligible for coverage under AFA must sign up or pay a penalty. And it was promised that anyone who wanted to do so could keep the coverage that they had prior to AFA, but it turns out that was a false promise made in order to get support for the law.”

“Why does it have to be so complicated?” Smut asked. “Can’t people just go to their vets, I mean, doctors, and get treated? What’s so complicated about that?”

“Treatment is expensive and people have to buy insurance to be able to pay for treatment. And the insurance is very expensive. So the politicians said they would create a system in which the insurance would be cheaper and everyone could afford health care. But as the government always does when it gets involved in anything, it created a system that is so complex and with so many regulations, that the effect is opposite what was intended,” I stated, proud of my ability to explain the situation.

“Is it opposite what was intended?” Smut asked, with a smug look on his face.

“What do you mean, dog?” I asked, not quite understanding what he was getting at.

He uncrossed his hind legs, took a long sip of whisky, and leaned forward in the chair. “Did the politicians really intend to create a law that would benefit you, or did they intend to create another government bureaucracy in which they could give jobs to their friends, and extend more government control over your life?”

“Smut,” I replied, “they couldn’t really be so evil as to do that!”

“That’s what they do whenever they pass such a program into law,” he remarked laconically. With a smirk on his face, he settled back once again in his chair, drained the whisky from the glass, and took a long, slow puff of his cigar and slowly exhaled, generating a cloud of smoke that glowed from the light cast on it by the lamp on the end table next to his chair.

With the shock of sudden realization, I knew the old dog was right.

“Don’t ask me anymore questions, Smut,” I said. “You already know the answers to them.”


January 11, 2013

Any government is the natural enemy of its people’s liberty and freedoms. The objective of those in government, even if they’re not aware of it, is to centralize government control and consolidate its power, depriving its citizens of rights and freedoms in the process. If a people have nothing to protect them from their government, they are nothing but slaves.

The writers of the American constitution knew that. They had just dealt with an oppressive government, so the constitution was to be a contract between the American government and its people that would itemize what the government could do, and specifically prohibit it from doing certain things.

In the debate over ratification of the constitution, some saw that the constitution as written was insufficient to protect Americans’ liberty, so they proposed a Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the constitution. It is probable that the constitution would not have been ratified without those first ten amendments. Those amendments embody our best chance to remain free from government tyranny.

The constitution afforded Americans not only protections against the government depriving its citizens of their freedoms, but protection against the will of a misguided majority acting in haste to take away the freedoms of the minority.

Because a majority can act unwisely in an emotionally charged situation, changing the constitution requires that a proposed amendment be ratified by three-fourths of the states to become law. In this way, during the time required for ratification, cooler heads can prevail and an unwise change be averted.

The greatest danger to Americans comes when the people react without careful reflection in a crisis or as the result of an emotionally charged event, and the government, seizing the opportunity to take away freedoms, quickly passes laws or executive actions that abrogate constitutional protections.

Now some government officials and private citizens are suggesting executive action and/or passing laws in contravention of one of the first ten amendments. If changing one of our basic protections to our liberty is a good idea, then it should be done by an amendment to the constitution, not by government fiat.

Americans will remain free only as long as they demand that the government hold fast to the terms of the contract that protects us: the Constitution.