In Spite of Ourselves

I don’t have big story about how John Prine shaped my worldview or how his keen understanding of the human condition has imbued my own mortal struggle with meaning. It seems as if many do, as if his recent death is for many as significant as the death of author David Foster Wallace was for me. I think I understand the feeling, though my own connection to Prine was a thin one.

I liked his music. I remember first hearing his song “We’re Not the Jet Set” about 20 years ago. At the time, I listened to an up-and-coming local Bluegrass station a lot on my morning commute, and I really liked this clever duet. The DJ said John Prine was the male half of the pair (Iris DeMent sang with him), and that’s when I learned his name. I’ve heard him here and there over the years, and in the last year or so, I’ve listened to his music a fair bit. My son and I had listened to a lot of Prine’s music over the last couple of months in particular. So he was in my frequent rotation already when the news of his having caught COVID-19 broke.

Musical talent doesn’t come very naturally to me. I can pick out melodies with a little trial and error, but my efforts to learn the guitar or the ukulele have fizzled out in recent years. I do occasionally pick up one of these instruments, though. Last weekend, having listened to Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves” a lot recently, I thought it’d be fun to try to learn it to the best of my little ability on the ukulele. It’s got just three chords — C, F, and G — that are all easy to play on the uke. I was able to pick it up fairly easily, though strumming one rhythm while singing another proved difficult.

I don’t remember what provoked it, but I wound up thinking it’d be fun to amp up the song’s comedic potential by writing some alternate lyrics in which the members of the duet were a well-known odd couple. My mind turned to Frodo Baggins and Gollum, and I spent a few minutes Saturday morning plunking away on the uke and tinkering with some new lyrics. Prine died the Tuesday after.

I’m under no illusions that it’s a fitting homage to Prine, and I’ve got no real business trying to create an homage, but the timing of his death and of my working on this happened to coincide. So I give you my variation of John Prine and Iris DeMent’s “In Spite of Ourselves.” Verses should be sung in the voices of Frodo and Gollum, alternating, with the refrain sung as a duet. I’ve kept some of the original phrasing, and where a line feels like too much to cram into the standard rhythm, that’s on purpose too, though I won’t insist that it’s necessarily good. The closing line is to be spoken earnestly, with a good-natured shake of the head, in the voice of Gollum.

In Spite of Ourselves

He don’t like to eat stewed bunny.
He thinks cheatin at riddles ain’t funny.
He’d take jewelry over money.
He goes to ground when the weather’s sunny.
He’s my stalker, I’m his precious,
He’s never gonna let me go.

He ain’t had taters since he left the fellas.
He cannot see that Sam is jealous.
He ain’t too sharp but he gets things done.
Eats his lembas like it’s oxygen.
Nasty hobbitses, has my precious,
I’m never gonna let ’em go.

In spite of ourselves, we’ll end up burnin’ up in Mordor.
Against all odds, precious we’re the big door-prize.
We’re gonna spite the fingers right off of our handses.
There won’t be nothing’ but big ol’ rings dancin’ in our eyes.

He thinks my friend Sam’s too needy.
Seeing my necklace makes him greedy.
He likes to go off and argue with himselveses.
Swears like a sailor when spotted by elveses.
He takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’,
He’s never gonna let me go.

Shelob will be glad to eat him,
Filthy hobbit never thought that I would cheat him.
Just because I called him master,
He thought he’d avoid disaster.
It was fictitious, now here’s my precious,
I’m never gonna let it go.

In spite of ourselves, we’ll end up burnin’ up in Mordor.
Against all odds, precious we’re the big door-prize.
We’re gonna spite the fingers right off of our handses.
There won’t be nothing’ but big ol’ rings dancin’ in our eyes.

In spite of ourselves.


About a dozen years ago, I visited my mother-in-law by myself for some reason or another, and what I found when I got there was a two-pup litter of dogs, little black and tan Terrier/Yorkie mixes who could just about fit in the palm of your hand. One had sleek, smooth fur and the other had little bits of fur that stuck up from his head. There was the coffee breath, the impossibly sharp yet endearing little teeth, the little puddle of warmth. I fell in love with the pup with the mussed hair and begged my wife to let me get him. She reluctantly acquiesced, and for several years, I was a reasonably good pet owner. We lived in an apartment without much room to run, but we would play with him in the little back yard area outside our apartment, and of course we walked him and treated him to a pretty ok life.

A few years later, we moved into a house in anticipation of having a child. We got a fenced in yard with plenty of room for what his meager running needs were. I suppose we began walking him less since he could have the run of the yard on demand. Then we had our daughter and life changed for everybody. Moby was the least among us, the last to get attention. Still, his name was among my daughter’s first few words, and I have vivid memories (and, somewhere, video) of her belly laughing as we toss a ball across the kitchen for him again and again.

When we anticipated our second child, we moved to a bigger house with a substantially bigger yard. Moby was beginning to get a little age on him then, was less inclined to run the whole yard. It always struck me as odd that he’d play fetch for ages inside, with the ball ricocheting off the baseboards, but you could never get him to go for more than one or two even modest tosses outside. Turn on the water hose and he would go nearly rabid, running and leaping at the water, snapping at it with his teeth and growling.

Having two kids didn’t make us much better pet owners. Moby became essentially a piece of furniture that made lots of irritating noise if someone happened to have the nerve to walk within viewing distance of the front of our house and that woke me up in the middle of the night probably three or four nights a week needing to go out and pee. More and more, he became my wife’s dog, and he would follow her around. I’ve felt guilty for a long time about the crappy pet owner I became.

As the kids grew up, they played with him some and probably would have played with him more had we set a better example. The only thing my tender-hearted daughter asked for for Christmas this year other than books was for toys for Moby and her cat. She loved him, would hug him even though he didn’t often much want to be hugged in the way kids tend to hug pets.

Moby was mostly in good health. We took him to the emergency vet once when he was pretty young, and it was inconsequential enough in the long run that I forget what the issue was (probably lots of vomiting). Once when trimming his nails, we clipped a blood vessel in the hollow of the nail and he bled all over the house, and I remember how awful I felt. If you ever graze that blood vessel, you try to get corn starch on the nail to stanch the bleeding. At least that’s what we were counseled to do and what we did, with ok results. A few years ago, we noticed that when he would run, his back legs would go kind of limp mid-stride, not to the point that he couldn’t support himself, but just in such a way that they looked kind of floppy. Just as quickly, they’d stop. We learned that this sort of disjointedness wasn’t terribly uncommon in dogs of his type. A couple of years ago, a vet said his heart didn’t sound the best, but there wasn’t much cause for immediate concern. His eyes were beginning to show the faintest hint of cataracts, and he had developed a lump in the skin of his throat that the vet had previously tried to test and ultimately decided that, at Moby’s age, it was best just to leave alone. He was slowing down as he aged but seemed fine — still full of spunk if somebody came to the door, for example — until the last couple of days.

Yesterday he became very lethargic and his breathing became labored and slurpy. He lay around listlessly, and we took him to the vet. X-rays showed nothing, and the vet said it was an infection. We got some pills in him and figured this would pass once the antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs started to take effect. He would drink no water, threw up a few times, and continued to be more and more listless as the day wore on, to the point that we carried him upstairs to the bedroom and made a special little palette by the bed for him. He woke me up in the night (of course — good old Moby couldn’t get out of that routine even feeling his worst), and I carried him downstairs and put him in the grass. He sat there for a minute before finally trying to do his business in the yard, with generally unsatisfactory results. I brought him back in and slept through until the morning.

This morning while I was working upstairs, I could hear him breathing from downstairs and went down to bring him up to be with me in the office. His nose was pretty clogged, and I tried to help him out there, offered him some water, petted him a bit. He napped for a little while, restlessly, before ambling off while I was distracted with work. My wife returned home and watched over him a little. He took his medicine but couldn’t keep it down, and he threw up any time he even just drank water. Late this afternoon, I came downstairs for a drink and discovered that he had thrown up some more and was clearly feeling worse. We decided to take him to the vet again, and by the time I picked him up to put him in the car (he wasn’t fit to walk), he had made himself a puddle.

I could tell from the vet’s face when she first looked at him that it wasn’t going to be a great visit. She listened to his heart, looked at his gums — which were suddenly grayish yellow — and said that with the inability to keep anything down, this was clearly liver failure. She could put fluid and antibiotics in him via IV but didn’t feel like he stood a chance of returning to good health. There were the impending cataracts, the lump, and Moby’s age to consider. While I held him during my visit, he leaked yellow fluid all over me, and there were other effluvia of various colors and points of origin. He was not well. He would not get better. It was time to let Moby go.

I called my wife, who brought the children over to say goodbye (I didn’t want to subject Moby to the further jostling of another car ride). After a few last minutes sitting with Moby in my lap in the springtime sun with the children petting him and crying, I took Moby back into the vet’s office.

Sometimes you read a touching story about a dog who has died like this one by a friend or this one by Neil Gaiman. Even if you’re a hard-ass as I tend to be, these things can make you feel for the dogs, for the owners who loved them so. I had been at best a mediocre caretaker for Moby. I petted him more in the last 18 hours of his life than I probably had in the prior 18 months combined. Hard-hearted bastard though I am, I had to bite my lip to keep it from jumping around my face in grief when I spoke with the vet about Moby’s next steps. It was hard to keep the tremble out of my voice and the mist out of my eyes. I suppose I contained my sadness more than many would, but for me it was a veritable opening of the floodgates. I feel sad that my children have to experience this (and they are of course devastated). I guess I probably feel a lot of guilt. I should have been a better caretaker.

The vet injected Moby with a massive dose of anesthesia. I continued to pet him, and as she pushed the plunger on the syringe, she said that I might want to hold his chin in my hand. I did, and his head relaxed into my hand, and he went limp and still. The slurpy breathing had stopped. The quaking he had sometimes been doing had stopped. She held a stethoscope to his chest and told me that his heart had stopped.

I brought him home wrapped in the soiled towel I had brought him in, sealed in a cardboard box, and we drove to the home he was born in to bury him with the various other pets who’ve lived and died there over the years. We stopped and bought a peach tree to plant next to his grave. My daughter buried with him his harness and one of the pet toys she had gotten for Christmas. The affair was surprisingly less somber than I had imagined it would be.

The children will cry every day for days, I imagine. My daughter asks again and again why Moby had to die, and it’s both strange and understandable, since this is a hard thing, death, even for adults, and I think it must be hard for her to imagine that it’s a real thing. When my mom died, I remember being sort of astonished that this was a thing that happened to people that was now happening to me even though it wasn’t a scenario I had really ever imagined it was possible might happen to me.

In a few weeks, when the blackberry patch near Moby’s grave starts producing berries, we’ll go back for a visit. We’ll look at his grave and water the tree. Then we’ll wade into the mire of blackberry bushes and pick our baskets full and our fingers and lips purple, delighting in the sweetness of the fruit and the jam to come, the greedy thorns be damned.