Death by Chocolate

Some dogs are allergic to chocolate. Not our ‘Beagle Bailey’! We first discovered this at Christmas several years ago when the gift for my wife, a pound of imported Belgian chocolate, was consumed during an evening out. Entering the front door, we were greeted by a year old beagle racing laps around the living room, literally “climbing the walls” as she used the corners for leverage so she would not have to slow down. It was before the iPhone came out, so I could not capture it on video, but my whole family witnessed her reach the foyer where we were standing only to leap (beagle ears flopping) with a single “WOOF!” and then complete another lap at Olympic speed. We thought she was going to die, if not from the heart attack sure to accompany that much chocolate, perhaps from the rightful owner of the chocolate. But we honestly could not be mad at her as much as we were laughing.

I lost about 30 pounds last year. That meant curtailing a bit of “eat until you’re stuffed” and shifting instead to “eat what you know the right amount is and stop.” It requires willpower and discipline, but not as much as I would think when I was just complaining about how hard dieting was. I use to say (and really still do, because I find it funny) that the word diet begins with “DIE!” But in other areas of my life, discipline has an important, often critical, place. The whole point of discipline is that we don’t want to do it. You just have to chose life by salad instead of death by chocolate. Like Bailey, chocolate has a certain place in my heart also.

That certainly was not the first encounter we had with this beagle who came to me known as “Houdini-dog”. Garbage? No can was a match for her. Heck, no cabinet door or childproof lock was a match for her. The garbage had to be locked in another room when we left home. Sometimes that didn’t work either. She was trained, mind you, I don’t want you to get the idea that this dog was just wild. Even as a puppy, she was as smart as she was determined. When she was just right at old enough, we took her to obedience school only to have the instructor look at us with that “amateur” look in his eyes as this beagle always found a way to steal the treat. I’ve trained shepherds, labs, and collies, so it was embarrassing enough to even be there, but my vindication came soon enough. Upon his “let me try” I retorted with “you have no idea how stubborned this dog is!” He found out quickly, however, when his determination to outwit and outlast a puppy met its match in Bailey. We did, eventually, teach her that love overcomes stubborn determination in many ways – but not so much with food. For that instructor, he lost 30 nibbles as “Sit – staaayyy – good… oh, wait, dangit!” became his most repeated phrase that day. He even tried placing his foot over the treat thinking he could step faster than she could leap. He was wrong.

My dog and I shared a trait for having iron stomachs. I pride myself in retelling the story of eating at this little Tibetan monastery in India while there… perhaps the subject of another story. She had absolutely no control over her urge to eat whatever she determined was edible. I was a little more refined, at least I ate only what would reasonably be considered human food. Like my dog, however, I have a streak in me that just does not listen when my mind and even my body tell me it is ok to quit. I’m not just talking about food, either. Hunger for anything will drive you to push beyond simply meeting your needs and go to having everything you can consume. C.S. Lewis commented on this profoundly when he compared it to a culture fascinated with lamb chops on display in peep shows – you would not assume them to be hungry, but to be broken. He was commenting on the sexual revolution, actually just before what we consider that timeframe, but the same can be said in our time of all kinds of hunger – work, sports, success, even simplicity has taken on an extreme and consuming flair. For me, it is probably being busy. I just go, rest is either intentional or exhaustion with little in between; I go on 3 hours or less of sleep far more often than I care to admit. Do you know what you get when you combine insatiable hunger and pure determination? Bailey.

My German Shepherd, by contrast, was a lady. Gentle and strong. When she would lay down, her posture would be upright and her ears high as she delicately crossed her paws like a royally trained champion. I wish I could take credit for that, but she was just poised. I look at the pictures of her and Bailey the day we got the Beagle pup and I remember the regal shepherd looking up at us with the expression, “what have you done?” That shepherd was the best dog ever. I held her the night her heart gave out; I had known is was coming for some time, I suppose, since we had been to the vet numerous times and I was already giving her fluids through an IV on occasion. Ironically, the family had just watched Marley & Me the night she passed; I didn’t know the ending. It was tough on me for a lot of reasons, but most of all because, while I was attached and would miss her, I had not missed any person in death more than my dog. It was comforting in an odd way, in that I had not lost a lot of close friends. Yet, at the same time, it was haunting because those I had lost, including both sets of my grandparents, were not particularly close enough for me to enter what I would consider a period of mourning. I missed my dog more. Is that too honest?

We had anticipated our shepherd’s departure and so we had a puppy (Max) already introduced to our home so that our beagle would not be alone. Bailey, however, was like the Artful Dodger trying to teach the new lab pup how to be street smart. We would observe from around the corner as she literally unwrapped truffles by placing a paw on one end of the wrapper, grasping the other end in her teeth, spinning it quickly open, and perform the feat of catching the chocolate in the air. She would get into anything, no garbage containment system could match her wit; but chocolate always brought out the beast in her. She escaped every fashion of entrapment, opened doors and cabinets, and scaled walls… or so we thought, since we were not quite sure how this beagle always could reach counter top heights. Then one day, headed to the car, I realized I had left the keys on the counter. Family in the car, dad turns to head back inside only to find Houdini-dog moving an ottoman to the fireplace bookshelf where my middle school daughter had left a chocolate brownie! I should have just let her have that brownie, I mean, come on.

I learned a thing I did not expect from my dogs. I would go for walks in the county, down an unfinished road where the houses were not yet built, and my shepherd would sit by me while I puffed on my cigar as the beagle explored. When it was time to go, I always had to work harder to get Bailey to realize that it was I who determined when it was time to go home. Stubbornness often keeps us away from the thing we most desire. It was really tough to let the beagle get as much love as our shepherd, and later the black lab, when she was always the guilty one. After cleaning up all manner of garbage and sitting down with Max’s big “I didn’t do it” eyes, which always got him affection, the beagle would sulk in the corner by her own choice. We went out of our way to make sure she got loved on, even if we didn’t want to just yet. She always knew when she had done something; guilt made her look away. We knew that she knew because she had no problem looking right at you any other time – but when it was her fault, she would look at the wall, the lamp, anything but the human. I learned by watching her that I do exactly the same thing. That which we hunger for consumes us while what we truly desire is on the other bank of the river called guilt. 

When my wife started getting really serious about eating better and becoming healthy, I pulled a little bit of a Bailey attitude on her. Sure, I would eat healthy most of the time, but if there were doughnuts in the office for everyone then, why not? I was going to the gym too, after all. I would lose a pound, gain a pound. Then I realized it must have been gaining a pound and a half as I clipped 220. Last year, however, I decided that if I was going to be serious about it then I had to look myself in the eye and admit that I needed the self discipline to be intentional about my lifestyle. Having a disciplined life matters at work, so I had to care about discipline in my health as well. That’s the thing about self-discipline, no one can do it for you, right? I stopped whining about my (very) flat feet and trained for my first 5k. I hate running. Max, however, loves to run. Bailey always wanted to go, but the few times I took her (and walked, of course) I ended up carrying her half way home. Her hips were now too old for such long jaunts. I started interval training and that is where the weight came off, along with actually tracking my food intake – both quantity and quality. I would work out in the hotel on travel, watch my diet, and count eagerly as a half pound melted away. It always seems to come off slower when you check every day. Having lost the 30 pounds, I have no regrets! I still have 20 to go for my goal (which is still 10 pounds more than my military weight ). I have slacked off a bit. Some of my stubbornness is showing itself again.

I have good reasons for slacking off, mind you. We have been in a crazy busy season. That middle school brownie girl was married this year to an awesome dude that I am proud to call son. My wife and I are finally opening up that coffee shop next year that we always talked about. Work has been more than a little busy this year and I travel a lot. However, from Thanksgiving until the Christmas we decided we were going to try to slow down a little. “Good luck,” I hear from all that know me. I think it is best summarized by one of my friends who said, “I get tired just watching you.” Must be the coffee.

Opening the coffee shop involves trying quite a lot of chocolate. It also involves visiting really awesome shops in other cities to get ideas and try lots of tasty food. I’m being good, I only gained a couple pounds back and have the discipline to stop eating even if I could eat some more. I’m not being great about it, mind you, just good. Chocolate and coffee, you see, have a particularly close relationship – rich, refined, and wide in variety to explore for those who delve into the good stuff. High end coffee shops use single origin chocolate for their mocha – melted from really good bars and infused into the well crafted espresso. We bought several varieties to sample, being careful to just taste a small corner of each in the comparison process so we could savor the nibbles as we compared. We thought the basket on the fridge as safe, and our counters had been secure for some time now as Bailey had gotten older, the bad hip making it unlikely that she would climb the walls any more. We made the mistake of thinking the kitchen counter was safe this time. We apparently had learned nothing.

My life got simpler on Thanksgiving this year. We were always surprised to come home to some disaster as Houdini-dog escaped her kennel or opened a cabinet to slay the garbage bag or unlatch the cabinet to eat a pound of sugar. This time, however, she got $100 worth of finest single origin chocolate from the countertop basket. We still have no idea how. Guilt was not the only look on her face, however, as the look of a sick kid who ate too much candy was also in her eyes. We had seen her more than a couple times with a belly full, so it was no surprise when a few hours later I was cleaning up her vomit, $95 worth, that evening. She perked up a bit, but you could tell it wore her out more than normal. I decided to take her to the vet in the morning just to be sure she was ok. The morning never came for Bailey.

I wanted to be mad. I am mad. I hate to say it, but she will never again wake me up to a clanging water bowl at 5 am just because it happened to be empty and she noticed. Never again will she be able to open the luggage of our guests. Never again will I have another dog quite like her. I am sad too, but not like I was when my shepherd passed. I am still grateful that the several funerals I have been to since that time have been to support friends rather than say goodbye to them, but loosing Bailey was still more like loosing a friend. Being a pastor, my folks know quite well that I am heavy on thinking and light on feeling and they give me much grace. This time, however, it was not a slow goodbye like it was with my shepherd; it was a robbery. Her hunger consumed her and there was nothing I could do about it. I was robbed of helping her grow a little older.

I realize it is not a very inventive title, it was not the chocolate that killed her, per se, but a binge of overeating that we estimate to be 5 pounds of all kinds of things, even wrappers we think. Regardless, I do not think I will ever have the dessert “death by chocolate again”. I don’t ever want to forget the lesson I have learned from my now bygone friend, the beagle. I’ve prized self-discipline in every area except the ones where I lack it; those realms of hunger push me past my limits and hold me down with guilty chains. I sometimes wonder if God looks at me and comes over to give me love even when I would rather turn the other way and be alone.

We have a choice that Bailey did not have. You have a choice, if you will look your reflection in the eyes and admit it. In case you have not figured it out yet, I am not talking about overeating, but over-anything-ing, which all of us are guilty of in some area. You can overcome your urge, be it a drive towards work, anger, lust, or some other appetite. But you cannot do it alone. Yes, your body is driving you. But it doesn’t have to. You see, the thing Bailey did not know that I do is that community, real community, is critical to breaking free of bad habits and making good ones. Self-discipline, true, is about oneself. It is not, however, easy to achieve alone. Support, encouragement, forgiveness, and unshakable friendships are critical ingredients too. Don’t rob your friends of your fellowship, of your person, by hiding in guilt. Come, be thankful, and share in the joy of those who love you; experience life by community. Come sit by the fire and stop wallowing over the spilled garbage. How can we ever be expected to “love our neighbor as ourself” if we don’t love ourself enough reach out to our neighbor? Don’t rob me of your friendship because of guilt, and don’t let me rob you of mine. God knows, we need each other.


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