The All Too Brief and Magical Life of Russell the Hound

There is always good news. This is what I have learned in 41-plus years walking this planet. 

This is my dog, Russell. Russell is almost 14 years old, and I’m lucky to be his human.


By any metric, Russell has led a pretty incredible life. He started out as a marginally cute puppy:

IMG_4320 IMG_4318 russell


When Russell first became my best friend, I was writing a hiking column for the Bellingham Herald. He accompanied me to some of the world’s most beautiful places, to snow-capped peaks higher than anything east of the Mississippi. Since we moved to North Carolina, he’s also been to the top of Mount Mitchell, tallest mountain on the east coast. He used to wade in the shallow, warm waters of Birch Bay, a proud achievement for a basset hound that can’t exactly swim.

panorama dome -- russell shuksan facing camera Panorama dome -- russell drinking water in front of Baker me and russell and mt baker

He loves flowers. With that powerful nose, it’s no wonder. I’ve always loved this photo of him checking out a dandelion:

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And snow: he has always loved snow, from the time we spent plodding through it while trekking to the the times we came in out of it to sleep in front of wood stoves (an amenity he loves so much that I’ve insisted upon it with every house I’ve ever owned). Often, snow or not, he’d sleep with his head fully beneath the stove itself, only pausing for the occasional drink of water. I imagine this is like a person sitting in a sauna and then following it up with a cold plunge.

Once, we were hiking Oyster Dome near Bellingham, and I called out to him across a field of snow. The result was this photo as he raced toward me, his face a paroxysm of joy: 

russell in snow ears in air russell in snow russell and backyard snow


When I moved to Okinawa, Russell lived with my mom for 9 months. He spent a lot of time in the hammock, which became one of his favorite sleeping places. He’s a loving, friendly hound, and my ex-wife and I had always argued about whether he was actually capable of defending us if anything went bad. While I was in Okinawa, we got the answer. Mom was being stalked by a stray German Shepherd, and Russell — all 65-pound hound of him — stared the other dog down until he backed away. Thanks, Russ. I still owe you one for that.

It wasn’t until we moved to North Carolina that Russell became the bon vivant and hound about town, though.

He’s starred in rap videos. He, his sister Penny and I were walking down Rigsbee street when my man Saleem and Professor Toon drove by. The result of that afternoon was this, something that still makes me smile broadly every time I watch it:

During my various costume parties in Durham, we also discovered that he looks awfully good in hats. This was put to good use when Russell and another dog won a contest to be on the Indy Week cover and on the “Best of the Triangle” plaques that are distributed to local businesses. You can see a bunch of these around town at your favorite places, and I’m always sure to patronize the shops that prominently display Russell.

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Russell, Wed., January 9, 2012

Russell, Wed., January 9, 2012

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Russell’s celebrity isn’t just from art and music. He’s also a prominent political activist, having starred in a pro-public investment campaign run by the Budget & Tax Center. My favorite part comes at 1:26, when the bus door opens and startles him. The end is pretty great, too.

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When I walk Russell around town, people stop to talk to me. Basset hounds have that effect on people. One time a person stopped her car just so she could run across the street to hug Russ and pet his ears. On another occasion, someone I didn’t know at all looked at us and said: “You have a basset hound. You must smile all day long!” And mostly, that’s true, except when I’m forcing him to do this for a backlit Christmas card.


There’s always good news. I believe that. Some days I need reminding more than others.

This week he’s been listless. He stopped eating, never a normal sign for any dog, let alone an ample fellow like my stately gentleman. I took him to the vet.

Today I found out that Russell has a big cancerous mass in his abdomen. Even if they were to take it out, and he were to make it through the surgery (no guarantee, since he’s old, has a heart murmur, and doesn’t react well to anasthesia), he’d need chemo. And all of that, the doc says, probably wouldn’t buy him much time, certainly not a year. We agree that putting him through the pain isn’t worth it.

Let me give you the rest of the good news, such as it is: he’s in no discernible pain. My new job lets me work from home, so I’m with him constantly. He’s had a great life filled with walks and belly rubs and love. And today I got him to eat a meal for the first time in maybe a week. All of that is good.

But the vet didn’t soft-sell the other news, either. He’s lost a lot of weight. He has a really limited time left, and he could go downhill fast. It started to become real for me when the vet gently informed me that they were closed on Sunday, and so I’d better keep the number for Lap of Love handy. It could be days or a couple of weeks. But the outcome isn’t in doubt. You know the type of cancer you get better from? That’s not this type.

That leaves making him comfortable, making the rest of his days as good as they can be. That’s my top priority. But — if I’m being honest — I’m not ready for him to go.

I’m not a religious man now, but when I was in seminary school 6 or 7 lives ago, I struggled with the church’s teaching that animals don’t have souls. You could much easier convince me that many human beings lack them. If the soul is all that is good and right and just in us, what has that if not a dog?

I never got a satisfying answer from my seminary teacher about this. He did have this, though: “If you get to heaven and you still want your dog, he’ll be there.”

Theologically speaking, I’m a lot more given to the Presbyterian teachings of Fred Rogers: “The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that’s what heaven is … We make so many connections here on earth.”

That’s the good news. I have a great life. Russell has had a great life. My expectations for the joy that is possible, for me and for him, have been exceeded a thousandfold.

It’s just hard for me to think that it’ll be heaven without him.


How A Critic Is Different From a Hater

In that moment, I was as mad as I can remember being.

I was at a major tournament with a bunch of people from my school. One of my good friends and teammates was about to compete (I won’t say names, so as to obscure the details, since the principle isn’t about this specific incident). He was competing against a highly-regarded competitor from a major competition school. The two competitors were ready to step on the mat, and I was preparing to coach and yell support.

What I wasn’t prepared for: a large upper belt from the other guy’s school starting to talk loudly about … well, let me just quote:

“Our guy is going to crush this guy,” he said. “I mean, LOOK at him.” He continued from there. It got progressively more disrespectful, and although this guy out-ranked me and out-weighed me by a fluffy 100 pounds, it started to feel like he was the Chester half of Chester and Spike.  He went on about how our guy looked compared to his guy. Eventually, I asked my roommate to stand between me and this guy so I wouldn’t say or do anything stupid.

The match started, and the fluffy brown belt kept talking — until it became apparent that this would be a tough match after all. At about two minutes in, he stopped talking altogether. The match was neck and neck the whole way. My teammate wound up losing, but it was a terrific performance, and I was proud, and the portly gentleman was both much relieved and much quieter. He exhaled, did a small celebration, but there was none of the mess-talking that had been so present before.

Then came the moment that solidified in my mind that I would one day tell this story. One of Fluffy Brown’s teammates asked about when they’d see him compete.

“Oh, I’m basically a hobbyist,” he said. “I train twice a week, and I don’t compete any more.”

After I heard that, I had to take a walk.


TR trained jiu-jitsu. He knows what's up.

TR trained jiu-jitsu. He knows what’s up.


You’ve no doubt seen this quotation from President Theodore Roosevelt before. That’s because it’s classic, and it expresses numerous important ideas. Foremost among them is that it’s better to come up short again and again that to simply point out “where the doer of deeds could have done them better.” If we want to build great things, we have to try, and we usually have to fail at first. As the playwright Samuel Beckett put it: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I want to make a clear distinction here. Though Roosevelt uses the word “critic” here, I don’t think the guy I’m describing counts as a critic. I would use a different word, a word that is thrown around a lot, and is often overused and misapplied. That word is hater.

Critics, in fact, are valuable. No one is above criticism. In fact, we should welcome good-faith criticism. It’s how we learn and grow.

When your instructor tells you to stop taking top position against new people, that’s not hate: that’s identifying the next step in your evolution. When a visiting black belt takes the time to explain why you’re not finishing from the back, it can feel like a scolding, but it isn’t. It’s a learning opportunity. It’s criticism, not hating. A good critic is invaluable, because a critic identifies flaws in your approach — and flaws can be fixed.

A critic has the doer of deeds’ best interests at heart. A good critic tells you where you’re making mistakes in open guard positions so you can fix those mistakes. A hater doesn’t deal in good faith: they point out the weaknesses in your open guard (or career, or life) so they can feel better about their own.

A critic advances us towards becoming our best self. A hater tries to tear us down to their level. Your coach is a critic. Your supportive teammates are critics. The guy who makes fun of you for trying is a hater.

It’s important not to confuse the two. A good high-profile example of confusing the two came recently when Rener Gracie penned a note entitled “to the loyal haters.”



#Haters #Dang

Gracie University has come under a good deal of scrutiny over the past few years, first for online belt promotions. More recently, it’s been because of the rapid proliferation of schools with lower-belt instructors.

In Rener’s note, he refers to the folks scrutinizing the way Gracie University has developed as “haters.” That’s not accurate, in my view. Of course, there are some people on the Internet that will take any opportunity to take pot shots at anyone. Many of the people who were concerned about the online belt system, though, were respected black belts. And even people who think a Certified Training Center run by a blue belt might be a good solution for a rural area with no legitimate training for 100 miles — I count myself among these — think it’s a terrible idea to drop a blue belt who has studied mostly online right next to a school run by Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belts and pretend like there’s nothing wrong.

Notice what these have in common: each has a solution. People have legitimate concerns about online belts? You can modify or end that program. People think that a mostly-online blue belt shouldn’t be represented as equivalent to a 10-year black belt? There are structures that can be put in place to guard against that.

None of this is possible, though, without being open to critics — not haters, but critics.

Sometimes, folks like to think they have haters. If you’re being singled out for criticism, you’re special. You’re different. You’re important. And if you are these things, then any critique of your work is simply hating.

There are two problems with this. First, it doesn’t necessarily reflect humility. We all can make mistakes, and few of us are so important that people are going to sit around thinking of meritless criticisms.

And I think most people do operate in good faith. I think more people want to help you than want to hurt you. I think you’re not much different than anybody else, trying to get better at something you like doing, and the people criticizing you aren’t hating so much as trying to demonstrate they have something to offer. I think Morrissey was wrong.

What, then, is hating? Hating is when you’re not critiquing in good faith. It’s when you’re criticizing Rener Gracie just because of who he is, rather than the way he’s going about his project. It’s when someone tries something new and, instead of honestly interrogating the project to see if it’s worthwhile, you treat the project like Rick James treated Eddie Murphy’s couch.

If you’ve noticed, there’s a fine line to walk here. I don’t think that only people who compete have a right to criticize others (although if you don’t compete at all, you might shy away from criticizing other people’s teammates in front of them during a tournament); instead, I think that criticism should come from a constructive place. On the other side of things, I think people who create things need to be open to critical thoughts from observers.

Here’s the most important thing. If you take only one thing away from this post, I would have you remember this:

It’s easier to destroy than it is to create; tearing things down is also quicker than building them.

If we want to have good things in the jiu-jitsu community, we have to not be quick to tear down the people who try to build them. If we want to have great things in the jiu-jitsu community, the people who build things have to be open to hearing what might make their efforts better.