I frequently give my wife a hard time about distraction. She will declare her next move and then do five other things before making that move. The fact is that she has ten times – or a hundred times – the practical focus that I have. Her distractions can be handled and dismissed in minutes; mine can take months or years. If you have stuck your head into this dusty blog, you’d be aware that we take dog rescue seriously around here. About 9 months ago, I was invited onto the Board of Old Dog Haven. From the fiction author perspective, or the fan of a fiction author perspective, this can be considered a distraction within a distraction, and so on, going on seven years now. A man named Bob has told me in no uncertain terms that once my writing became real, it became scary, and there is some truth in that. It’s equally true that once money becomes involved, many hurdles drop onto the field. Presumably, real publishers handle these sorts of things, but I haven’t gotten a real publisher, and I’m not even sure that I want one.
Renewal v. 2.0, Decay, Promise, Definition 2.0, Deadwing, Tales from the Edge, The Bus, Deep in the Dust, Web, all sitting here on my hard drive – collecting dust, months, and years while I chase the distractions.
The good news of distractions is that I take the lessons and the characters away from those experiences, but the bad news is that it’s all too easy to use those as a reason not to push the button and get my work out there.
I’m going to tell you the story of Old Dog Haven in vastly simplified form, and I’ll let you decide whether it’s a worthwhile distraction, but before I do, I’m going to say that it was a flat failure in terms of what I hoped to accomplish.
Old Dog Haven is a Western Washington dog rescue that Sharon and I have worked for 5 or 6 years. They take ownership of old dogs with chronic health problems, typically unadoptable dogs, and foster them out to a network of homes who care for them until they pass away. This allows dogs to live out their lives in security and love, rather than dying quickly in a cage in a shelter. I can tell you that the experience of fostering one of these dogs is incredibly rewarding. Watching a dog transform from a shelter wreck into a happy, healthy dog is amazing. It’s different from raising a puppy. Most of these dogs were once loved and a have a lifetime of habits that tell the story. Perhaps their person died or went to a nursing home. Perhaps they succumbed to dementia and forgot the dog was even there. Perhaps the family knew and didn’t care, or perhaps a family loved a dog for its entire life and then ran up against the hard costs of caring for an old dog. In any case, Old Dog Haven pays for the medical care and allows someone to retire these dogs in a loving home. Thanks to the expertise of the founder, they do that very well.
Coming from my Southern upbringing, dogs were a side note. We didn’t hunt with them, we didn’t train them; they simply were always around as pets, but not really part of the family. They only came into the house when the weather was brutally cold. Otherwise, they lived in the garage and roamed free, happy to join the foodgivers when we came outside. My perspective has shifted hard over the years. Some of that comes from my wife, who definitely wouldn’t have a dog that is not treated as part of the family. Some of it comes from the dogs themselves. I spend a lot of time among them, and I can’t help but conclude that they are sophisticated thinkers with as many modes of thought and as much depth of emotion as we have. Even the little ones, who I once thought were essentially squirrels. I stand corrected. They are fully dogs, and there’s a one-eyed Shih Tzu in our house that may be the smartest dog here. Given the first hand experience, I can rifle back through time and rethink my perspective on a great many animal advocates I once thought were completely nuts.
The fact is that we have been in direct relationship with dogs for a very long time. Depending on the reference, we could be talking anywhere from 5000 years to a time when we weren’t even homo sapiens and gray wolves had not emerged from the gene pool. Dogs have worked for us in various roles in exchange for our support. We bred them into those roles from the prototype gray wolf and sacrificed a great deal of their natural survivability in the process. They don’t know that, but we should. They spend their total focus and devotion on us, in ways that we define, and in forms we have defined for a very long time. In return, we owe them. Old Dog Haven is a good example of how to pay that debt at the hard end of the exchange, when the dogs need the most support, and perhaps more importantly, when those dogs need someone who is willing to make the hard call and deliver the coup de grace, because no dog wants to survive its own definition of usefulness. If we don’t give them a job, they pick their own cause and they serve it with utter dedication until they can no longer. When that moment arrives, they know, and they want to move on from this life. They don’t let anything stop them, and they don’t waste time resenting lost limbs, eyes, or senses. They simply work with what they have. It’s a lesson we should all learn.
So, Old Dog Haven is a miracle and a disaster. I joined the Board last November, to the tune of a founding couple announcing their intention to retire, and the Board President of 12 years stepping down. What?! My own career has been a series of jumping into the the unknown and ramping up as quickly as possible, so that’s what I did. I studied Old Dog Haven, nonprofits in general, other dog rescues, and the legal requirements for such organizations. When I agreed to join the Board, I thought I would be able to apply my own particular expertise to help out in communications and technology. If you ramble over to olddoghaven.org right now, you’ll probably see what I mean. It didn’t take me long to see that those that those aspects were unsolvable without dealing with more fundamental aspects of the organization. I uncleverly assumed that everyone wanted those problems to be corrected, and started talking about it. Big mistake.
By March, I was both Board President and quickly developing as the Face of Evil ™. I was becoming a threat to everyone who wanted to keep doing things they way they had always been done. The kind word for those ways is sloppy. The hard word for the old ways is illegal, or at least legally non-compliant. They simply added up to a huge risk for the organization and the founders. Given that legal reality, who wouldn’t want to straighten it out? Turns out, virtually everyone. There was simply too much to hold onto personally for the prominent members of the organization to go down without a fight. Over the years, a benign neglect of management had allowed certain people to carve out little strongholds of power within the organization, and they held on tight by keeping normal information secret or deliberately shaping the information they did provide, or worse, by outright lying to create a false narrative. In the sympathy column, many of these people have their entire lives tied up in Old Dog Haven, and taking it away amounts to stealing someone’s spouse. On the other hand, a nonprofit is a public trust that should be capable of withstanding scrutiny from anyone, and Old Dog Haven is the polar opposite of that definition. I’m sure there are several regulatory agencies that would have a field day.
As a Board President with a supporting Board, I had the first and probably last opportunity to clean house on a deeply flawed organization that happens to do wonderful things. I could have simply exerted normal Board authority and fixed most of the problems. Unfortunately, the organization doesn’t believe in Board authority, and half of my Board flipped at the last moment and left me with no options. I gave them a graceful resignation, and they are busily maneuvering for position while they agree mainly on the need to drive a bus over my well-intentioned corpse. Whoever emerges as the new Board President will learn the same lessons I did. They will cycle through optimism and frustration that arrives at paralysis, and if they attempt to make a change, they will have the same target on their back that I did. The Old Dog Haven Board will continue as a symbolic checklist item, a nonfunctional rubber stamp for a sole dictator in charge of the future of an organization. Dictators can last a very long time, but their domains tend to be a lot less successful than they should be.
But that’s not the fun part. The fun part is that the faction that controls the organization is in the business of personal power at the expense of a clean organization. They are all willing and capable of stabbing each other in the back to curry favor with whomever they think will give them an advantage at any given moment. I’ve seen the tides shift numerous times in my short tenure, and I wonder how long it will take without the easy, unifying target of the Face of Evil ™ before they start turning on each other again. History says it won’t be long. In the meantime, I resist the temptation to hurry it along by throwing forwarded email grenades onto the battlefield.
I sound bitter, but mostly I’m sad. I don’t really care who runs the show as long as it continues, because the mission is important to me. In its current state, almost anything could cause the whole organization to implode. I had hoped to stabilize it, but I failed.
Another wasted distraction, filed under, “No good deed go unpunished.”
So, a great deal of time – measured very accurately by how little blogging has occurred – and effort wasted, but that time is freed up. What to do? I hope there are still a few of you willing to scream, “Publish!” at me.