Lee Harrington is the author of the best-selling memoir, Rex and the City: A Woman, a Man, and a Dysfunctional Dog (Random House, 2006), and of the forthcoming novel, Nothing Keeps a Frenchman from His Lunch.
Culture: Stories & Lit
October 24 2012
All of my life, i have dreamed of having at least two dogs, but always knew I would have to wait for the right situation. For me, the “right situation” involved living in the country rather than in New York City, in a house surrounded by lots of land and with all the time in the world on my hands. Or at least, enough time to train my second dog and help him adjust to his life with Chloe and me (in our house in the country). I wanted to be able to take them hiking and give them plenty of attention, engagement, exercise and so forth. I figured that, with a second dog, my caretaking duties — meaning my supervised duties, above and beyond the care my dogs always receive — would amount to about four hours per day.
Why four hours? I wanted to adopt an English Setter.
You know how it is — we dog lovers can be partial to certain breeds or types of dogs. And, oh, the glories of mixedbreeds! Who can resist the combos? My own Chloe is some sort of Spaniel/Lab/Border Collie amalgam, and I adopted her, in part, because of my Spaniel/Setter fixation. To me, the only thing better than having a bird dog as a companion is to have two bird dogs. So the idea of adopting a second dog was always on my mind.
In 2006, I finally left New York City and moved to the Catskill Mountains full time. I had had Chloe for about a year at that point, and we had enjoyed a rich life, spending part of our time in an apartment in the city and the other part at a small cottage upstate. It was an ideal situation in many ways, but it got to be exhausting. The commutes and the changes and all that packing and backing-and-forthing was too much, especially with a large dog in tow.
So I moved to that big house with lots of land I had always dreamed about. Finally, it was time to adopt my second dog.
I was very excited at the prospect, and I knew Chloe would be too. We all know that dogs are pack animals and thus are happiest and most comfortable when they are members of a canine pack. Chloe loved other dogs — she loved to play and romp and flirt — and she also seemed to enjoy being a mother dog. I got a kick out of watching her play with puppies at the dog park, wrangling them and letting them crawl all over her, giving them playful but very gentle swats and nips. It made me wonder if she had had puppies at some point in her young life, before I adopted her. It made me wonder if she missed them.
Therefore, I decided I would adopt a puppy this time around, rather than an adult. I had the time, after all. And I knew what raising and training a puppy would entail. I felt fully prepared to adopt my Setter pup.
And so, I began my search on Petfinder.com.
Whereas I’d searched the Internet for several months before choosing Chloe, the second-dog search took only a few weeks. I found a Setter rescue group that I liked, and they were in the midst of arranging adoptions for a litter of nine liver-and-white pups. Seven of them were male, and I knew I wanted to adopt a male. I telephoned immediately, and spoke with a kind and encouraging volunteer, who filled me in on the adoption process. We spoke for about 45 minutes — about me, their group and my potential dog — and by the end of the conversation, she told me she’d send an application. (Apparently, this group will not even send out applications until they speak to the candidates in person or on the telephone.) “You sound like an ideal candidate,” the woman said.
I must confess that I also thought I was an ideal candidate to adopt a dog. I’m not saying that I’m a perfect human specimen, or that I know every last thing there is to know about dogs, but I do work for a dog magazine, for goodness sake, and — thanks to Wallace and Chloe — have scads of experience in living with and training birdy-type dogs. Plus, I seemed to have all the right answers to all the questions on the adoption application:
• How many hours per day are you home? (Average, about 20.)
• Where will your dog sleep? (Wherever he damn well pleases — usually on the most comfortable bed in the house.)
• How much exercise will your dog get? And where? (Hours daily, at dog parks and on hiking trails.)
• What is your income? (Enough to keep the dogs, and myself, well fed, comfortably housed, healthy, impeccably groomed, constantly entertained, etc.)
• What will you feed your dog? (Bones and raw food and homemade meat/vegetable/supplement mixtures.)
• What sort of training methods will you use? (Clicker.)
• Do you have a fenced-in yard? (Um … kind of … but we have many acres of land in a low-population area with no cars.)
When I expressed concern to the volunteer about my lack of a fenced-in yard, she said that this group often made exceptions for “the right candidates.”
Can you blame me if I thought I was a shoo-in? After my application was approved (with flying colors, I might add), we arranged for a home visit. One of the volunteers from the rescue group would come the following Saturday to meet me and my dog and check out our digs.
Gleefully, I started to prepare — mentally and literally — for the arrival of my new puppy. I bought cute little toys and a memory-foam bed. I read up on puppy-specific training, and on the body language of puppies and mother dogs/ female dogs. I even picked out a name: Trinley, in honor of a Tibetan monk of whom I am particularly fond. (He said it would be all right to name a dog after him.) “Trinley’s coming,” I’d say to Chloe in a sing-song voice. “Your new little brother Trinley!” One night, I even dreamed about him; in the dream, he snuggled and squirmed in a way that seemed incredibly real. Trinley was so excited to be with us and we were so excited to be with him. When I woke, I was convinced that the dream was prophetic — that Trinley was meant to be my second dog.
Yes, the thought sometimes crossed my mind that I would not be approved, but those thoughts were fleeting. After all, I had adopted Chloe without any trouble. Millions of dogs in this country needed homes. Surely my offer to provide a home for an unwanted dog would be granted.
My evaluator, Mr. W, arrived at my house on a sunny Saturday. An older man, he was wearing khakis and a polo shirt of a distinctive color that we in the know call “Nantucket Red.” He drove a silver Volvo with a Connecticut license plate, and had a gorgeous Belton-type English Setter in tow. The dog had one of those long names I can no longer remember. “Constantine’s Westchester Amblefoot Toucan Pie” or some such thing, with the call name “Took.”
“Took,” I repeated happily, and reached into the car window to pet him. “Would you like to come meet Chloe, Took?”
The man seemed uncertain. “He doesn’t really play with other dogs. I’m not sure I should let him out of the car.” I must have looked at him perplexedly, because he added, “He’s a show dog.”
Took was now barking madly and scratching at the car window, trying to wedge his body through the small crack.
“Well, I suppose I could take him out,” Mr. W said. He then strung Took up on a choke chain and let him out of the car.
I should point out here that I Iived on 16 acres of land, much of it bordering thousands of acres of state land. Chloe is never on a leash because she does not need to be: (a) she is not a roamer, and (b) she is, as we have seen, well trained and has perfect recall. For recall, I use hand signals in addition to verbal cues, and a special whistle she can hear at great distances. She’s a terrific dog who has earned her freedom.
Now, Chloe waited for my “okay” command before she said hello to Took. She play-bowed and he play-bowed back, then he leapt forward for a romp, only to be yanked back rather cruelly by Mr. W, who had pulled sharply on the choke collar.
I winced. I hate to see dogs yelping in pain. “Do you want to let him off-leash and watch them interact?” I said. “We can watch their body language and signals, to see how Chloe interacts with other dogs.”
“I never let him off-leash,” he said. “He hasn’t been off-leash since he was six weeks old, straight from the litter. If I let him go, he’d never come back.” Do you know that for certain? I wanted to ask. But I held my tongue.
“Will you let him off leash inside the house?” I asked.
“Sure, I think that will be okay.” I wish I hadn’t asked. Once we got inside and Took was released, he began to wreak havoc. First, he peed on my sofa, then he ran into the kitchen and jumped up on all the counters, sweeping his snout across in search of food, knocking over blenders and utensil containers along the way. Finding nothing to eat, he ran into the bathroom, tipping over my little metal trashcan with a sharp rattle and digging around for used tissues. Meanwhile, Chloe followed Took with a rather perplexed look on her face, as if to say: We don’t do that around here.
“I think I’ll put him in the car,” Mr. W said. Back outside, I showed Mr. W the property. As we walked with Chloe across the meadows and around the pond, I pointed out stone walls in the distance that marked the borders, and the mountain that loomed behind us — the beginnings of the great Catskill Park.
“Chloe is boundary trained,” I said. Mr. W had never heard of this, so I explained that I had spent many hours taking Chloe along the property’s perimeter, which I’d marked with light-colored flags on various trees, and used a clicker to teach her that she was not to wander beyond those barriers. “It was time consuming, but it was worth it.”
“My dog could never be trained like that,” he said. I wanted to say, With a clicker, you can do anything, but I held back out of respect for his point of view.
I showed him Chloe’s various skills, cueing her with a mix of hand signals, verbal cues, eye movements, whistles and clicks. It felt like a circus act, but she seemed very pleased with herself, and happy to entertain our guests.
When I told her to “run to the pond,” she ran to the pond, which was quite a distance away. Then I shouted “Come” and blew the whistle, and Chloe returned, bounding happily across the grass, ears flapping.
Mr. W was impressed. He petted Chloe and praised her when she returned. “What a good dog!” he said. “I never knew dogs could do such things.” She beamed.
Then the issue of the fenced-in yard came up. I had a pool, which was fenced, but both of us knew that didn’t really count. I was banking on the fact that this particular rescue group made exceptions to the fence rule for the right candidates.
“Chloe loves to swim,” I said, pushing through the gate into the pool area. “She does laps.”
“Technically, we require six-foot fences,” Mr. W said, looking around, “and I worry about this pool.” Then he turned to me and smiled. “But I think you’re a good candidate. I’ll put in a positive recommendation.”
I was so happy that I hugged him. Chloe, sensing the mood, threw herself on her back and waved her legs in the air. We talked a bit more about bird dogs in general and Setters in particular, and then discussed the logistics of the adoption process. “I submit a report of my home visit,” he said, “and then the board meets to decide.”
All in all, I felt that this home visit had been a pleasant experience, and a successful one. As we parted ways Mr. W emphasized that Chloe seemed to have a good life here.
So imagine my shock when, a few days later, I received an email notifying me that I had been rejected. The reason? Lack of a fenced-in yard. And more: boundary training. “We cannot give our dogs to people who boundary train,” I was told.
I was crestfallen. Rejection never feels good in any situation, but this felt like an emotional, even personal, blow. I cried for days, realizing I had fallen in love with Trinley and lost him before even meeting him. You who have had your applications rejected will know what I mean.
Soon, my sorrow was replaced by anger and indignation. I complained to my off-leash and dog park friends, to my rescue friends, to my dog-writer friends. Everyone had choice things to say about this rescue group’s decision. I am not usually a back-stabber, but it helped to let off some steam.
After a few days of immature moaning, I finally had to settle into the truth that Trinley would not be coming to live with us. I like to think that I’m rational, and I always try to see both sides of the story. Thus, I reminded myself that people who work at rescue groups are well meaning. Actually, that’s an understatement. They volunteer their time and effort and heart all for the sake of rescuing and rehoming dogs. They have witnessed cases of intolerable neglect and abuse. They have seen dogs die at the hands of humans. They have rescued dogs who were emaciated, or broken-spirited, or simply confused at being separated from people who didn’t care enough to keep them. I am sure that doing this kind of work would make it hard to have faith in the human race. So I guess they didn’t have faith in me.
I must say, it took quite a while to get over their decision. In fact, I pretty much gave up on the idea of trying to adopt another dog. Years passed, and by the time I started to reconsider, Chloe was a different dog. Now she’s showing signs of arthritis, and is no longer all that patient with exuberant dogs, especially pups. She has also become — forgive the pun — quite the bitch, and doesn’t necessarily want to share her space with anyone else but me. So perhaps it was all for the best. Who knows?
I think about Trinley sometimes. I am sure he found a home; puppies always do. But I wonder about all the dogs who still do not have homes because their applicants were rejected. I do respect a rescue group’s need to err on the side of caution, but I often still wonder: What exactly is the fine line between caution and error? We look forward to hearing your responses.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Getting the Dog You Need
September 4 2012
Those of us with exuberant dogs (herding dogs, hunting dogs, tracking dogs … well, just about any dog, really) truly appreciate their exuberance. We even appreciate their excessive need for entertainment and exercise; it helps get us up and moving, after all. But admit it, my fellow exuberant-dog caretakers: don’t you sometimes just want to sit down and relax? Especially during the lazy days of summer?
Before we get to the answer, I must preface this with a description of life with my first dog, Wallace (the subject of Bark’s “Rex and the City” columns). He was a Spaniel/ Setter mix, as hyper as they come, so I never got to sit down and relax in any season. To get him even remotely tired, he needed to be taken outside — where he could gallop, chase squirrels, swim after ducks, leap fences — for at least four hours a day (12 was even better). Accomplishing this was quite a challenge, given that my then-husband, Ed, and I lived in a 300-square-foot apartment New York City. But, because our lives revolved around our beloved dog’s needs, we took Wallace hiking as often as we could. I am grateful for this. Wallace’s exuberance led us to discover some truly amazing parks, hiking trails and beaches within driving distance of NYC. There was the beach at Jacob Riis Park in Rockaway, Palisades Park in New Jersey, and the “remote” Fort Tryon Park at the tip of Manhattan (90 blocks is “remote” to a New Yorker).
My favorite hiking trail became Breakneck Ridge in Cold Spring: an easy and scenic onehour drive up the eastern side of the Hudson River. It’s not an easy trail, and some of the climbs to the ridge are rocky and — to me — a bit treacherous, but the views made it so worth the effort. You could see for miles: the Catskill Mountains … the bluffs at Bear Ridge … and the great and majestic Hudson River, which threaded its way mightily all the way down to New York City. The water, from our vantage point, looked pure and silver. I loved to watch sunlight dance across the river’s surface, as if in celebration. From the ridge, the world seemed beautiful and vibrant and manageable. We would hike down feeling renewed and ready to take on life in the city again (which could be challenging, to say the least).
After our hike, Wallace, dear Wallace, would be tired, so tired that he could barely keep his eyes open as he sat upright in the back seat of the car, resting his head against the window trying to take in the last bit of scenery as we drove south. A tired dog is a wonderful sight.
It was also wonderful to see him run for three hours straight on those trails. As soon as we unhooked his leash, he would gallop off, chasing squirrels, following scent trails and basically just seizing the day. We could hear him barking wildly in the distance — a bray of chase and joy — and when he returned, panting, he’d be covered in burrs and leaves, his eyes so bright we thought he had had a glimpse of the Great Beyond.
Yes, I will always be grateful for my exuberant dog. He brought us nature and hiking and Breakneck Ridge. In the non-hiking hours, however, I must admit that he could be rather a pest. Whenever I sat down to write, he would nudge me and poke me with his snout, running back and forth from my desk to the apartment door. Whenever Ed was stretched out on the sofa watching TV, Wallace would nudge him, too, wedging his head underneath Ed’s hand — the hand that held the remote. If I tried to meditate, he’d crawl on my lap and splay out for a belly scratch. If I tried to do yoga on the living room floor, he’d come and lick my face and then lie underneath me on the mat as I moved into downward-facing dog.
After Wallace died, I adopted another Spaniel mix, Chloe. I was divorced by then, and some of my friends and family questioned my decision to adopt yet another exuberant hunting dog. Especially given that I was living alone in New York City. But we often fall in love with certain breed types, and even certain mixes.
Those of you who are familiar with this column know I adopted Chloe sight unseen, and that I adopted her because I fell in love with her picture on Petfinder.com, and because she was listed as a Spaniel/Setter mix, just like Wallace. I was prepared for a dog who would want and need to gallop four hours a day. When I met Chloe, I began to suspect that she was also part Border Collie and/or part Lab as well. Did this mean she would need 12 hours per day — four for each breed characteristic?
For a few weeks, I was a bit terrified: a Border Collie in New York City? I kind of prayed that she was mostly Spaniel. Her markings (white with patches of brown) could be either Border Collie or Spaniel. She has those intense Border Collie eyes, however — those “I will stare at you until you do what I say” eyes. Would I ever be able to sit down and relax again?
I also have to admit that, by the time I adopted Chloe, I had become lazier about exercise in general and hiking in particular. Truth be told, it was my former husband who was the hard-core outdoorsman. Once we split, there were no more arduous six-hour treks up steep, rocky ridges for me. But I was willing to resume that old habit to keep my new dog and myself in tip-top shape.
Fortunately, by then, I also lived part-time in Woodstock, which is situated just at the edge of the Catskill Mountains. There are plenty of parks and trails through which an exuberant dog can gallop and play. My favorite trail is right in the heart of the village. I like it because it is easy and flat and relatively short — it takes about 45 minutes to walk the loop. I especially like it because of its simple beauty: the trail threads through meadows and forests and then meanders along the banks of a robust stream — one that, in spring and summer, teems with waterfowl and frogs and fish.
Wallace would have gone into a birddog frenzy at the sight of the fowl, and I figured Chloe’s Inner Spaniel would be activated as well. But the first time we hiked that trail, Chloe ran straight past the waterfowl and plunged into the water.
It turns out my bird dog is a water dog, more interested in what lies beneath the water than what paddles along on its surface.
I’d never seen anything like it. She ran into the water, tail held high, and immediately began trolling for fish. She gazed intently in the shallows (with those Border Collie eyes) until she detected even the slightest movement beneath the water. Once she spotted one of those tiny minnows, she pounced.
I stood and watched her race up and down the shore for a few minutes, splashing happily through the shallows. Part of me was eager to keep walking, to maintain our fat-burning, aerobic pace. I figured Chloe would tire of fish-trolling once she figured out that fish were not easily caught. But I quickly realized that the fun, for her, was in the pursuit. She continued to track, flush and chase these fleeting creatures for the next hour. Sometimes she swam into deeper water to flush out trout; other times, she stuck her snout into the water to try to catch one with her teeth. Her tail wagged non-stop the entire time.
After a while, I sat on a large, flat rock and watched, enjoying her enjoyment. I personally did not get much exercise that day, but Chloe did. And once we dog lovers discover something our dogs love, we tend to go out of our way to provide more of it for them.
Thus it was that I discovered that the Catskills have all sorts of hidden streams, creeks, ponds and swimming holes. Chloe loved every one of them, for each contained different types of fish, which swam at different speeds. She quickly developed new skills to adjust to each variety.
As for me, I had to adjust to the fact that I wouldn’t get much exercise with a water dog unless I swam or fished myself. Which I didn’t, (a) because mountain-stream water is way too cold, and (b) because I don’t kill fish or any living creature. (I also had to adjust to the fact that a constantly wet dog means a constantly wet and mud-splattered car, and an extra hour each day spent wiping down the wet dog and washing the dirty towels, but let’s stay on topic.)
Then I remembered something my friend Melissa often says: “We get the dogs we need.”
Since my divorce, I had become pretty serious about my spiritual practice, sometimes doing up to four hours a day of yoga, mediation, chanting, chi gung and so forth. Though this can be time-consuming, I find that doing these practices ends up creating more time — quality time — and I can get more done in the day. But still, I am human, and we humans do love to multitask. New Yorkers seem particularly creative with their multitasking, especially when it comes to their dogs, so you’ll often see city dogs “doing errands” with their guardians: walking four blocks to the dry cleaners, helping to carry home groceries with their little doggie backpacks, scoring cubes of cheese at the Friday-night wine tastings, among other things (in NYC, wine tasting at the local wine shop is an “errand”).
I quickly realized that having a water dog was perfect for my new lifestyle. Each day, we drive to our favorite park and walk 20 minutes along a forest trail until we reach our favorite stream. There, Chloe trolls for fish while I do, first, my standing practice (chi gung, yoga) and then my sitting practices (meditation, mantra). I love these mornings especially in summer. I love the bubbly sound of the water (the stream always seems to be singing). I love the sound of Chloe splashing; the sight of the sunlight dappling through the trees; and the smell of so many elements: water and wood and stone and air. At that stream, it smells like Mother Earth herself. It smells like home.
Sometimes I find myself missing those hard-core hikes at Breakneck Ridge, and seeing those grand vistas with all their promises of greatness and grandeur. Sometimes I miss standing atop a mountain, above the teeming masses, so close to the sky and clouds. But at this stage in my life, I really value the stillness of sitting quietly by a stream. I am grateful for the opportunity to touch the earth, and rest, and go within.
Yes, we get the dog we need. When I was married, we needed a dog who would get us out of the cramped apartment and into nature — my husband and I would have killed each other otherwise. When I got divorced, I needed to slow down, look inside and center myself again.
And how cool is it that I get to do this and tire out an exuberant hunting/herding/fishing dog at the same time? It’s a perfect arrangement. We are both refreshed and content. Each day, Chloe has an opportunity to cultivate her Inner Water Dog and I get to cultivate my inner self.
After 90 minutes or so, it is time for us to go home. Chloe is often reluctant to get out of the water — she’ll look at me with a confused, almost betrayed, expression. But eventually, she’ll conclude that I am indeed serious about leaving the park, especially when I turn and walk away. Then she’ll bound out of the water happily — on to the next great adventure: sleep.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Part V: Springer Has Sprung
July 18 2012
Like many people with rescued dogs, i do not know the exact age or birth date of my French Spaniel mix, Chloe. When I adopted her in the fall of 2004, I was told she was between six months and one year old — which is a wide margin, considering how much a dog grows in that first year. And while part of me wanted to believe she was at least a year old (because she weighed 55 pounds at the time and I doubted that I could physically handle anything beyond that), I decided to give Chloe a March birthday.
Why was this important? Because I wanted to throw Chloe a birthday party, of course. We always welcome a reason to celebrate our new shelter dogs, and what better day to celebrate than March 20 — the first day of spring.
Spring in New York City is particularly glorious, in part because we New Yorkers have to endure such harsh and miserable winters. One could argue that New York dog people are exposed to more than our fair share of the harshness in winter, because we have to take our dogs outside at least four times a day. This is not to say that having to walk our dogs is anything to complain about at any time of year, because we love, love, love our dogs. But, to be perfectly honest, walking a dog through ankle-deep slush in the freezing rain (rain that somehow manages to rain sideways) is not fun. I can’t say I unequivocally enjoy it. Just don’t tell my dog I said that. (But sometimes, not even she enjoys walking in the sideways-sleet. So there.)
Anyway, winter is behind us now, and signs of spring in New York City are everywhere. On the sidewalks, you’ll pass dozens of mini-gardens planted in the city’s tree beds and protected by low iron fences. Because volunteers or townhouse owners or neighborhood associations take charge of these mini-gardens, each one is different and beautiful in its own unique way. Beneath one tree you might see clusters of purple hyacinth mixed with white dwarf daffodils; the next flower bed will contain clusters of colorful primroses arranged within tight tangles of ivy; next: a riot of eye-popping tulips in pink, orange and red. It’s wonderful to see so much color after so many months of gray. We start walking our dogs almost 10 times a day because we just want to be outside, soaking up all that beauty.
Often you’ll see little signs posted at the base of these tree beds, with the message: Please do not let your dog urinate on the flowers, and we dog people always respect that request, because spring in New York City is a time of happiness and renewed hope. Every New Yorker is in love with the world in spring, so we are kinder to one another, and more considerate. We smile and make eye contact. We take time along the way to smell the flowers, as they say. Thus, no one messes with the flowers. Plus, as I always tell the dog, there are plenty of other places to pee in New York.
But getting back to Chloe’s birthday. Many people scoff at the idea of throwing a dog a birthday party, but those people are usually not dog people. They might not understand our belief that each of our dogs deserves his or her own “special day” just as we all deserve one. Or two or three or three hundred and sixty-five. One could argue that with shelter dogs, the desire to create a special day is even stronger, because these dogs may have suffered cruelty or neglect. These dogs may have spent months in cages, without being treated as “special” at all.
So bring on the marching band because we’re having a party.
Now, New Yorkers are known for going over the top when it comes to parties. I know people who have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for doggie birthday parties and doggie weddings. There are bakeries that make chicken-andoatmeal birthday cakes frosted with chocolate-brown liver pâté. There are doggie daycare centers that rent out party rooms for more money than you’d pay for your own wedding reception. There’s even a boutique that sells tiny rhinestone “Happy Birthday” tiaras for lap dogs to wear to parties on the Upper East Side. I am not judging any of this. I celebrate any occasion at which a bunch of dogs get to play and have fun.
But, being a writer, I was on a limited budget; therefore, Chloe was not going to have artisanal foie gras “pupcakes” at her party; nor was I going to rent a 3,000-square-foot space and hire an agility instructor to teach all the dog guests to leap over hurdles and shimmy through plastic tunnels and hoops (bummer). Also, I don’t cook, which meant there wasn’t anyone in my household who was going to spend four days constructing shepherd’s pie cupcakes from organic buffalo meat, vegetable terrine and mashed fingerling potatoes. No, I was going to keep this party simple.
Plus, I reasoned, dog people — when you get down to it — are easy to please. Know what I mean? We’re more down to earth, in a way, because our dogs constantly ground us and teach us to focus on the simple pleasures of life: nature, exercise, food, play, sleep. So who needs fripperies when the guest of honor is perfectly content with a dirty old tug-arope, a couple of dog pals to steal it from, a gingersnap and some praise?
I decided to hold the party at our local dog run, which happened to be one of Chloe’s favorite places in the world. The invitations consisted of a handwritten notice posted on the community board inside the run and a quick announcement on NYCDog’s Manhattan Dog Chat site. I requested “No presents, please” and encouraged well-wishers to make a small donation to Animal Haven instead.
March 20 happened to be on a Friday that year, which was great, because on Friday evenings, we held our weekly Yappy Hour at the run. We’d bring wine and music (and our dogs, of course) and spend a few extra hours socializing while the dogs tore around. Technically, we were not supposed to bring any food to the dog run because the presence of food can instigate food fights (among the dogs), so our rule for Yappy Hour was that you could bring snacks that would have no appeal to a canine: tapenade, tofu (raw, not fried), garlic pickles, seaweed salad, hot green salsa and so forth. None of these things paired very well with red or white wine, but that was part of the fun. Sometimes someone would sneak in a baguette or a bag of chips to accommodate the tapenade and the salsa, and that person had to stand on top of the picnic table, doling out slices of bread or some chips to the humans, one at a time. The things we do for our dogs ...
On the morning of Chloe’s assigned “birthday,” I fed her a special breakfast of lamb chunks (which she loved) and presented her with a pretty new collar. This collar was quite chintzy — a pink faux-velour band with fake pink crystals and rhinestones and embroidered flowers. But that is why I liked it. It looked like spring — something a six-year-old girl would wear as a belt to an Easter parade. And no, I did not spend hundreds of dollars on this collar: it came from Target and cost 12 bucks.
Chloe looked very pretty with her new collar, and I also had her groomed for the occasion, so her white-and-brown coat was sparkly and fluffy. At the party that evening, friends noticed the coat and new collar, and everyone went out of their way to praise Chloe and scratch her belly and tell her happy birthday. Chloe seemed to enjoy all the extra attention she was getting. It’s always nice to be told one is pretty. It’s always nice to be told one is a “good dog” and a “special girl.” Her tail wagged nonstop for hours.
People brought the usual assortment of sour, bitter and pickled foods to the party, plus a few bottles of wine — all of them from dog-themed wineries such as Mutt Lynch and Faithful Hound. Many of my dog-run friends cheated on the no-presents rule and brought presents for Chloe — toys and small packages of treats — and one friend actually made a little birthday cake (peanut-butter-flavored, with yogurt icing). I asked this dear woman to hide the cake until the party was over. Chloe, it must be said, had been the instigator of many a food fight, and I just didn’t trust her anymore. Not even on her own special day.
There is a famous line from the movie Casablanca, in which one of the male characters is described as “like any other man, only more so.” I guess we could say that, to a dog, a birthday is “like any other day, only more so” as well. At her party, Chloe played with her usual pack of friends: Greyhound mixes and Jack Russells and Lab mixes and Pit Bulls. They chased one another around the perimeter of the one-acre run, rolled in the dirt (or rather, mud, given that this was spring) and played tug-of-war and keep away. Their joy was a celebration of play itself.
After a few bottles of wine, we humans sang a rousing and slightly off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Chloe, trying to coax some of the hounds to join in. Barley the Bassett obliged, adding a singular high note to the finale. Then we brought out birthday hats — those little cone hats with those elastic strings that wraps under the chin. We managed to get the hats on several dogs, including Chloe, and we watched as they each tried to shake them off. Some might have considered this game mean (why torture the poor dogs?), but we laughed at their cute, comic struggles. After about 10 seconds, the hats became play things as one by one, the dogs got them off, took them in their mouths, tossed them in the air and/or ran off. Soon, the run was littered with mushy piles of chewed-up cardboard and string.
Chloe’s pretty new collar was also ruined within seconds, because her dog friends kept tackling her and biting her on the neck. And whose idea was it to groom a white dog two hours before taking her to a muddy dog run? Consider it a birthday splurge — much less costly than hiring a marching band. At the end of the day, I found bits of rhinestone and pink thread all over the run. “Made in China,” one of my gay friends said, with a smile and a shrug. “You get what you pay for.”
Eventually the wine ran out and the dogs got tired. Chloe returned to my side, panting, with bright eyes and a smile on her face as if to say, This is fun! I put one last birthday hat on her head and watched her run away and try to shake it off. She did so with a grunt and then stepped on the hat, looking up proudly, like a conqueror. This seemed to signal the end of the party, and we all gathered up our bags and leashes and dogs and said goodbye.
Once Chloe and I passed through the exit gate, my friend handed Chloe’s birthday cake over the fence, making sure that the other dogs did not see. It was packaged in a little pastry box tied with string, and as I carried it to the car, Chloe kept leaping up and twisting in the air — because somehow she knew this was her birthday cake. For me! her leaps seemed to be saying. Cake for me!
I always enjoy watching her leap like this — with such joy — because she spent much of her early life in a shelter. As she continued to bark and spin, I thought of all those shelter dogs, still waiting for homes. I hope that each one will have the chance to celebrate — and be celebrated — in such a way: with fun and sun and glorious weather, with trips to the dog runs to play with friends, with long walks in the park amidst the spring flowers, then lamb chops for dinner and a wellearned nap. A life like any other, only more so.
When we got home, Chloe wanted to snarf down the entire cake in one gulp, of course, but it was big enough for three meals, so we split it into thirds. As I put the two extra slices into the refrigerator, she looked at me rather forlornly, as if she had been betrayed somehow. She seemed to know (being a smart dog) that it was still her birthday and would remain so until 11:59. “Oh, all right,” I said, and gave her another spoonful. And then two more. The rest, I decided, we’d give to a neighbor — an elderly woman who was constantly bringing home abandoned Pit Bulls from the streets. “Is that okay?” I asked Chloe. “Do you approve?” She thumped her tail a few times, which seemed like a yes. Those poor Pit Bulls deserved a special treat to celebrate their new lives too.
The postscript to this story is that my 55-pound dog soon blossomed into an 80-pound dog. This had nothing to do with birthday cake. My French Spaniel mix now had the long and wide-ribbed body of a Labrador Retriever. This also meant that Chloe probably was born around March after all. She was a spring baby, as welcome as a new flower. Which is always a cause to celebrate.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A little herbal help for Rex’s party nerves
April 16 2012
It’s always stressful to throw your first adult party, and it can be even more stressful if you have a really hyper, poorly trained (or rather, imperfectly trained) dog. It was the year 2000 and Ted and I had just moved to a 350-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn. This was a big step up for us, given that our previous apartment was only 300 square feet. You might be shocked at that number, but we were overjoyed to have a bedroom door that could actually close (or slam, as the case may be) because there were no bureaus or beds blocking the way. It was indeed cause to celebrate.
So we decided to throw a housewarming party. Now, long-time readers of this column may recall that, when we first adopted Rex, three years prior to this party, he came to us fear-aggressive, anxious and mistrustful of humans, one of whom had abused him cruelly. With lots of loving care and training, we managed to “cure” him of his aggressions, but there is one thing you can’t cure an English Setter of, and that is being an English Setter, which means exuberant and energetic— and in a 350sf apartment, “energetic” can translate into “hyper.” Plus, only one-third of our guests would qualify as “dog people”—the rest of them liked to wear black and keep their clothing fur-free.
My first thought was to send Rex off to doggie day-care for the morning. (Because we were now officially adults, we decided to throw a brunch rather than a big smoky keg party with Jell-O shots and bags of chips.)
But Ted, having been sent off to boarding school as a pre-teen, said this could cause undue psychological damage.
“How’s he going to know we didn’t invite him to our party?” I said.
“Dogs always know. Plus, he’ll smell the remnants of 80 people … and quiche.”
So the dog was invited.
Then something—an article in the New York Times, perhaps?—gave me an idea: Sedate the dog. Now, before you throw this magazine down in disgust and call me irresponsible, hear me out: people do this in New York, you see, when they need to bring their dogs before potential co-op boards for “review.” A co-op board, whose job it is to make sure that you are socially acceptable and financially secure, can reject you for any number of reasons—maybe your daughter’s tongue piercing would be more appropriate at a co-op in Tribeca than one on the Upper East Side, or maybe you are a world-famous entertainer who happened to have published nude photographs of yourself a few years back. And I’d heard more and more stories of people getting rejected because the boards didn’t approve of their dogs.
Then and now, dogs often get a bad rap in New York. Every week, it seems, the local papers publish articles on this-or-that bad dog doing such-and-such, and as a result, co-op boards have become more and more strict about what kinds of dogs they allow into their hallowed towers, or if they allow them at all. Board members worry that dogs will bark all day; pee in the elevators; jump on strangers; or, in the spring, when the rain is at its worst, shake themselves off right next to a famous socialite and ruin her $4,000 Fendi baguette handbag.
Whatever. We all know there is no such thing as a “bad dog.” Just a poorly trained or improperly treated one. But New Yorkers have learned to take extra precautions in their “dog interviews” with the co-op board. Elite groomers are paid hundreds of dollars to triple-bathe the dogs, administer hot-oil conditioners, spend an hour on the blow-outs and then spritz the dogs with special aromatherapy oils, like bergamot or lavender, which are said to lull board members into a state of complacence and well-being.
Or people will spend $1,500 for five one-hour sessions with a dog trainer who specializes in the dog interview. In these sessions, the dog learns to sit, hold a down-stay and shake hands with the president of the co-op board, all while counting out his/her guardian’s income with thumps of his/her tail (say, one thump for every hundred thousand).
Then there was the couple in Tribeca who had a rather nasty and very vocal Jack Russell Terrier who didn’t like shoes, and because most people in the lobbies of luxury co-ops wear shoes, he was constantly nipping peoples’ ankles. They knew they could not bring him to the interview because all the board members would be wearing shoes. And so, at the last minute, they traded their dog for an imposter, a look-a-like JRT from a different litter. This imposter licked the president’s face, shook her hand, then went into a down-stay and literally smiled and thumped her tail at each board member who spoke. They were unanimously approved.
What I found most shocking were the stories I heard about people sedating their dogs with Valium. I guess, if you can’t afford the $300-an-hour training fee, Valium is available for a few dollars (or nothing, if you steal them from someone else’s medicine cabinet at their first housewarming party). But still. I was horrified. I was horrified and yet a little seed had been planted in my head.
And I know it sounds awful and irresponsible to even consider sedating a dog for a party, but I was an idiot back then, and lazy, and had not yet discovered clicker-training, which works so well I probably could have clicker-trained Rex into donning a tuxedo and mixing drinks.
“You can’t give him drugs,” Ted said. “What kind of mother are you? He’s fine the way he is.”
“I know he’s fine. He’s perfect. This will make him more perfect.”
“But this isn’t a co-op interview,” Ted added. “It’s a party for our friends.”
“It’s just that not all of our friends love dogs the way we do. Besides, I’m not giving him Valium. I’ve giving him herbs.”
A friend had recommended Rescue Remedy, which she said was the vodka martini of the dog world. It wouldn’t sedate him, she said; it would just “chill him out.” They use it for dogs in shock, she said, and for those who are terrified of thunder.
Now, I’m a fan of chillin’, so I used myself as the test subject before dosing up the dog. Just a few drops in a glass of water, or straight onto the tongue, and lo, I didn’t feel drugged or sedated, just oddly blasé and unhurried. I felt I had discovered the New Age “Mother’s Little Helper.” In fact, I liked it so much I decided to give myself a triple dose for the party. (Things like hosting parties stress me out, and Martha Stewart’s magazine is to blame, because her level of perfection is one that I can never seem to meet.)
“Want some?” I said to Ted, half an hour before our guests were to arrive. I held out the little glass vial which was, I realized, the same size as a syringe. Ted shook his head. “Bad mother,” he said, in the same teasing voice he used when he said “Bad dog.” I placed four drops of the Mother’s Little Helper on top of Rex’s head.
We served what adults are supposed to serve at housewarming parties: white wine, tiny quiches, fancy sparkling waters and a gruyère fondue. And we also served up an uncannily well-behaved dog. He’d been to the groomer and smelled like lavender oil, and his fur was silky and oh-so-white. People kept commenting on how beautiful he was, and how sweet and calm. There was a $16-per-pound wedge of Spanish goat cheese on the low coffee table that he didn’t even bother to sniff, let alone scarf up. And he didn’t climb up onto the windowsill and bark at passersby on the sidewalk. He did not once try to jump on the furniture because it was more effort than he could expend. Mostly, he wanted to lie on the floor and receive his well-deserved belly-scratches. “I wish I had a dog like that,” one of Ted’s friends said, and I wanted to tell her that this wasn’t a dog like that, but I was feeling just so blissfully blasé.
Throughout the party, I’d notice Rex resting his head on the knee of my editor, or sleeping at the feet of Ted’s boss, and was pleased to see that he hadn’t slobbered on her shoes. In fact, he hadn’t slobbered on anyone, or jumped, or barked. And for the first time, I knew what it was like to have a mellow dog—to have the sort of dog a co-op board would approve.
“Didn’t people, in the olden days, used to give their children brandy to help them sleep?” I said to Ted after the party.
“Yes,” Ted said. “In their milk.”
“I am a bad mother,” I said.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Ted said. We took Rex to Prospect Park as a reward. The “remedy” had worn off at that point, and he was back to his hyper, happy, hunting-dog self. We let him off-leash and watched as he chased after squirrels, manically followed scent trails, crashed through bushes and leapt over rocks, and actually bit the base of an oak tree, seemingly determined to bring it down because there was a squirrel’s nest up there. “He certainly doesn’t seem to have a hangover,” Ted said. “Maybe I’ll try this herb myself.”
“Oh, you should,” I said, perhaps a little too quickly (because what wife doesn’t want to sedate her husband once in a while?).
Ted just raised an eyebrow and called for the dog. He came bounding back to us, covered with burrs and mud and panting with bliss. So much for the $70 trip to the groomer and the aromatherapy oil. He seemed positively delighted with himself and his condition. And we were delighted, too. “Perfect dogs probably get really boring,” I said to Ted.
“Perfect people, too.”
Years later, one of our guests became the president of our co-op board when our building went co-op. Rex didn’t have to go to the dog interview—he had already passed.
Culture: Stories & Lit
March 22 2012
It’s not unusual these days for perfect matches — between humans and humans, animals and humans, even animals and animals — to be made online. Typically (in the Match.com department, at least), the humans actually meet before agreeing to make a full-time/ lifelong commitment. So is it crazy to adopt a dog you’ve never actually met face-to-face?
I did exactly that. I adopted my dog Chloe before I even met her. Crazy? Read on…
Many of you may be familiar with my previous Bark series (and book): “Rex and the City.” In this series, I chronicled my experiences trying to raise an unruly — but loveable — shelter dog (Wallace) in a 300-square-foot apartment in New York City with an unruly — but loveable — boyfriend. In 2002, our relationship ended and Wallace died tragically. All within a few hours. I officially left Ted on the morning of November 23; that evening, Wallace was killed in an auto accident. (See “Rex: The Story Ends,” Jan/Feb ’09).
After that, I cried every day for two years. I stopped writing about dogs for two years as well. In fact, I tried not to think about dogs at all, because thinking about dogs made me miss Wallace, which made me feel guilty and sad.
I knew that one day, when I was ready, I would adopt another dog, but “readiness” is such a relative and fickle thing. Sometimes I would log onto Petfinder.com and type “Spaniel” into the search engine just to see who was out there waiting for a home. But none of those 800+ Spaniels ever felt “right.”
I wrote about my new-dog quest in the aforementioned essay, but in a nutshell: after a two-year search, I finally came across a French Spaniel mix on Petfinder. Her name was Buffy, and she was being fostered by an affiliate of an English Setter rescue group in Michigan. She was listed as one year old, sweet and good with other dogs.
What struck me was Buffy’s photograph. She was looking straight at the camera, smiling, rushing forward as if she couldn’t wait to give the taker of the photo a kiss. Finish what you’re doing so that I can love you up! she seemed to be saying. Her big white tail wagged behind her in a blur.
Pete Townshend once wrote, in his song “Now and Then”: Now and then you see a soul and you fall in love/You can’t do a thing about it. That’s how I felt when I saw Buffy’s photograph. In that instant, my whole body began to tingle with certainty. I knew in my heart that I had found my dog.
My mind, however, disagreed. I had an incredibly wily and cantankerous mind back then, one that constantly tried to talk me out of doing anything fun. I called her “Hulga.” Hulga said, Buffy’s in Michigan, and you’re in NYC, and most rescue groups won’t adopt out beyond certain regions. You know how strict they can be. Why even bother?
It turned out that the adoption coordinator who answered the telephone — I’ll call her Amy — had heard of me. She’d been a fan of Bark and my column for years. The ease with which we spoke — and the camaraderie that quickly developed — was encouraging.
Amy said that Buffy was very sweet and loving. Her favorite things to do were to chase cats, eat cat poop and run through corn fields. I loved this latter image — a free-andeasy bird dog, galloping through tall green rows of corn, dodging down this row or that, occasionally springing into the air to sight and orient herself. It suggested pure joy and freedom. In NYC, our corn comes from corner delis — those tiny pickled cobs you find at salad bars.
“You should know,” Amy said, “that Buffy does have problems. She barks a lot and whines and paces and chews.”
I knew these to be signs of anxiety — most likely, stress caused by all the shuttling from shelters to foster homes. I also knew some people would label this as “problem behavior” and refuse to take the dog. But I’d been through this anxiety phase with Wallace, and we had worked it out.
“What’s Buffy’s history?”
Amy said Buffy was found wandering on a college campus. She was brought into a local kill shelter, where a woman named Kat discovered her. Kat was a cat person, who visited the shelter daily to rescue Abyssinians for her breed-specific group. When Kat saw cute, friendly Buffy, she contacted a local English Setter rescue group, and within a few days, Buffy’s profile was online. “It’s such a coincidence you called today,” Amy said. “We literally just posted her.”
But I was starting to think there is no such thing as coincidence.
“I have a good feeling about Buffy,” I said. “I believe this was meant to be.”
“Normally we don’t adopt out of state,” Amy said.
See? Hulga said in my mind. I was right. “But we may be able to make an exception,” Amy added. “I’ll just have to consult the board.”
Oh, no. The Board. Six months earlier, I’d tried to adopt an English Setter puppy from a strict rescue group in Pennsylvania. Their rejection left me traumatized for weeks. “Buffy’s very destructive and high-strung,” Amy said. “She’s hard to manage. You should think about it for a few days, while I consult my colleagues to see if they’d be willing to relinquish a dog to a strange New Yorker.”
So, I thought. I probably thought too much. Hulga had a field day. I asked myself: What am I doing, taking on another “problem dog”? I’d spent six years with a problem dog, and sometimes, quite honestly, it wasn’t fun. I’d had to contend with dog fights, dog bites and thousands of dollars worth of damage. Minor stuff, I told myself. In comparison to all that dog joy and dog love I received.
Still, Hulga said. Why not get an easy dog? One who’s already trained and well adjusted? Why are you choosing another difficult relationship? I’d just divorced my difficult relationship. Was I only comfortable when life was hard?
But this is a dog we’re talking about, not one of those men things. I reminded myself.
A dog you haven’t even met, Hulga said. Who sounds dysfunctional.
What if there was more to this dog — more “problems” — that Amy wasn’t elaborating upon? What if it turned out that I couldn’t manage Buffy’s problems alone? I was a single woman, and — at the time — bitter. I planned to remain single for the rest of my life. Would a so-called “easy” dog be easy enough for a singleton in NYC? And what had Amy meant when she called me a strange New Yorker?
The questions were endless. I drove myself crazy. Or rather, Hulga drove me crazy. This is what happens when we think too much — an epic internal battle of mind and heart, logic and intuition (with an unhealthy dose of Hulga thrown in).
Finally, I visited Riverside Park to watch the sun set beyond the Hudson River. The Hudson has always given me perspective; it is the kind of vast, forgiving river that helps one make choices. As I stood there, a woman walked past with a giant Mastiff who loped along with a goofy grace. The dog looked so happy to be outside in the park with his friend. And so did she. In that instant, I knew Buffy was truly meant to be my dog. I decided once and for all to follow my heart.
When I called Amy, I felt fizzy with excitement. Amy said I could have Buffy “whenever I wanted.”
“So the board has approved?”
“What? Oh, yes,” Amy said distractedly. Something seemed off. But I’ll have to save that story for another day. It took four weeks for me to actually get Buffy (another long story involving Buffy actually being adopted — and returned — to five other people in the interim). But soon, I had secured an “arrival date” for Buffy. She would be accompanying a volunteer on a plane to NYC.
I had ten days to prepare.
Rehabilitating Wallace had taught me a lot about dogs. Writing for a dog magazine had too. I now knew what kind of training worked best (clicker, positive reinforcement), what type of diet was healthiest (raw, organic) and which veterinary treatments worked best. I’m not saying I’m an expert on dogs, but at least I wasn’t as clueless as I’d been when I adopted Wallace. I felt confident. I was going to work with Buffy’s anxieties, restore her confidence, provide her with consistent and loving guidance, and gently alter her behaviors.
First, I cleared my calendar, rescheduling any appointments that would take me out of the apartment. I wanted to stay with the dog 24/7 for a solid three weeks. Next I researched how to treat anxiety using holistic methods. I stocked up on flower essences, aromatherapy oils, herbal supplements. I bought marrow bones (an essential ingredient if your anxiety-plagued dog is a chewer) and two pounds of raw chicken to help strengthen her immune system. I also stocked up on music. Yes, music.
As Buffy’s arrival date drew nearer, I purchased other essentials: A vintage-floral-patterned “Cozy” bed; a pretty new leash-and-collar set. A soft fleece blanket with which to cover the sofa, which I knew would be covered in dog hair within three hours of the dog’s arrival. All of the above were pink in honor of my new girlie-dog. I bought doggie pawwipes for rainy days, Musher’s Secret for snowy days, hair brushes (pink!), toys, treats (exotic NYC treats like dried kippers and ostrich skin), even a Halloween costume (more on that later).
Next, I posted on ManhattanDogChat, announcing the arrival of a new pup in the neighborhood who’d be looking for play-dates.
Already, Buffy was a true New Yorker, I thought. Hip grosgrain collars, lavender shampoo and dates.
Soon the appointed day came. I arrived at the airport early, my purse loaded with Bach Rescue Remedy and my pockets stuffed with treats. I must say I was nervous. It was like a blind date: Will she like me? Will she think I’m unattractive? Or weird? What if we don’t get along?
Then I saw a woman wheeling a large dog crate toward me. Inside was what looked like a Border Collie mix, panting and pacing and whining. Buffy? This crate had my name on it, printed in large black letters. Beneath my name was a sticker that read: CAUTION LIVE ANIMAL. The dog whined shrilly. For a moment I was dumbfounded — I had myself a new live animal. One who might not be any part Spaniel. Was this going to be another “Rex and the City” ordeal, in which I’d spend months feeling overwhelmed?
I reminded myself that I had followed my heart, and that the heart is always right. So I unlatched the crate.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A Canine Cure for the Winter Blues
February 22 2012
In my dogless years, I suffered from depression during the winter months. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) they call it, but for me, it was more ISMICGOOB (I’m So Miserable I Can’t Get Out of Bed). I won’t go into details about my emotional state or describe the dire thoughts and feelings that whirlpooled around my sun-deprived mind. Let’s just say that during the winter of 2003, I was a mess. My beloved dog Wallace had died, I had divorced my husband and all I loved most about life — including the sun — had receded. Winter nights in the Northeast can be 14to 16 hours long. But it seemed like 24
Culture: Stories & Lit
January 31 2012
When I adopted my dog Chloe sight unseen from a shelter in Michigan via Petfinder.com, she came with the name of Buffy. And she certainly looked like a Buffy in her profile photos—sweet and soft and eager to play. A dog who would buffer your emotions, and remind you to stay soft and gentle and happy yourself.
But somehow I could not see myself—a then-edgy New Yorker—calling out the name “Buffy” in Riverside Park. I mean, it’s a cute name, but for some reason I wanted to avoid being interpreted as “cute.” I’m too darn serious, thank you very much. And I’ve never seen that Vampire Slayer show—I don’t even own a television set. So the name Buffy would be misleading on many levels.
So that was Silly Reason #1. What was most important to me, however, was that Buffy’s new name be a reflection of her—her looks, her personality, her distinctions. I wanted a name that would summarize all that was unique about her dogness. Thus, I decided I would not give her a new name until I met her face-to-face.
I wrote about meeting Buffy/Chloe in my previous installment of “The Chloe Chronicles” (“Home, Again,” Sept/Oct 2011). In short, she was a 55-pound Spaniel mix, mostly white with brown markings, with a big bushy tail and a classic Spaniel face. The white stripe down the center of her head and snout was perfectly straight and proportional, as if hand-drawn by da Vinci himself. And personality-wise, she was totally a Buffy. Sweet and soft and friendly—just as her pictures had suggested. She was also quite anxious at the beginning, so I knew I wouldn’t see the real her right away.
I remember when I first brought the dog to our local, marvelous two-acre dog run in Fort Tryon Park), the first thing everyone asked me was, of course, her name. They all though it rather comic that I hadn’t chosen one yet. So I explained that her name had been Buffy but that I was going to change it once I got a sense of what her name should be. “Plus,” I said. “I’m not even sure Buffy was the name given by her first owner. ‘Buffy’ could have been the name the French Spaniel rescue group gave her when they pulled her from the shelter.”
In many spiritual traditions and creation myths, each human being has what is called a True Name. It’s the name of our soul, really, our Original Self, the part of us that lives on and on through many lifetimes. For those who don’t believe in the idea of reincarnation, our True Name is the name St. Peter has in his register at the Pearly Gates. In any case, it is said to be a very powerful experience to be called by your True Name, because the name brings forth everything that is, well, true in yourself: goodness, compassion, generosity, loving kindness … that sort of thing.
All of this is to say: I wanted to give my new dog a name that would call forth her Original Self. The dog she had been before she was abused and neglected and abandoned. But try explaining that in a New York City dog run.
“Well, what are you going to call her in the meantime?” one of my new dog-park friends, Chantay, asked. She was a tall, gorgeous, African-American woman with an historic brownstone townhouse in Morningside Heights and an excellent sense of humor. Her dog—a Weimaraner mix—was named Boo. “It’s easy,” she said. “One syllable, no mistakes.” She said that some day, she wanted to have three dogs so that she could name them One, Two and Three.
“I’m not sure what to call her,” I said. We stood and watched the erstwhile Buffy enjoy the dog run: happily romping, nipping and rolling in the dirt with her new dog friends. There was a Ridgeback mix named Lexie (who was Queen of the run); a French Bulldog named Myrtle; and a tiny, timid Terrier mix named Bird. “How did you come up with that one?” I asked Birdie’s human companion, Jenn, who was associate director of a prominent animal shelter in Queens. “I don’t know,” she said. “She just looks like a Birdie. Small and cute and sweet. Buffy does look like a Buffy, you know.” “You’re right,” I said. “I guess I shouldn’t rule it out entirely.”
For a few days, my new friends and I watched my dog run and play, hoping that her True Name might reveal itself. She was sweet and submissive—always the first dog to give up the toy in a game of tug; always rolling onto her back into a “love-me-I’m-submissive” pose when a new dog approached. “So she’s a lover, not a fighter,” Chantay said. As she said this, Lexie zipped past us, ready to take down an old Bassett Hound (Beatrice) who was lumbering through the entrance gate with her lumbering human. I loved to watch Lexie run; I loved to watch how much she enjoyed being the run’s top dog. She was never mean about it. Instead, she seemed rather exuberant, like a bride ready to take down her wedding party if they dared do anything to ruin her Big Day. And every day in a dog’s world is a Big Day. We joked that Lexie’s name should be Bridezilla.
But back to Buffy. As we watched her play at the dog runs, we shouted out various names to see if she would respond. We experimented with human names (Mavis, Blanche), food names (Carrot, Ginger, Pepper), Buddhist names (Tara, Maitri, Pema), literary names (Rumi, Edith, Colette) and rock-and-roll names (Townshend, Daltrey, Percy, Bron-Yr-Aur). But Buffy did not respond to any of the above. She romped and played and rolled in the dust, oblivious to the odd string of words we humans were shouting to her.
By Friday the names had gotten sillier because, as it turns out, Friday night was happy hour (Yappy Hour) at George’s Dog Run, and people brought beer and wine. Buffy was called, in no particular order: “Dogtella Versace,” “Compassionate Conservatism,” “You Gotta Problem With That?” and “The Artist Formerly Known as Buffy.” Chantay concluded we should call her “You” as in “Hey, You!” But that seemed too impersonal and even a bit rude.
I finally decided I should limit my dog-name choices to French names, in honor of Chloe being part French Spaniel. And in honor of my own part-French heritage. For some reason, I liked old-lady names, and came up with several: Babette, Claudine, Delphine and Chlothilde.
Actually, my new dog reminded me in some ways of an elderly French lady—une grande dame. The soft, slightly crimped hair on her ears took on a reddish color in the sun (all the grande dames in Paris dye their hair red). She had lively amber eyes. She was a pretty dog—very sweet-looking and feminine. She liked to stand on her head and wag her rump and her tail in the air in a manner that had something of the burlesque about it. So that was it: my dog would be named after a retired Folies Bergère showgirl. Thus, she became Chlothilde.
And how, you may ask, does that name call forth her Original Self? It turned out that my dog liked, above all, to entertain people. She liked to make people laugh. When someone came to our apartment, she’d run to the door with a shoe in her mouth, or a toy, or half of a chewed-up stuffed animal; present the gift to the visitor; then stand on her head. That’s a showgirl. I announced to my friends at the run that, after careful consideration, I had ruled out “Compassionate Conservatism” in favor of Chlothilde.
The only problem was, no one could pronounce or spell Chlothilde, and the explanation I had to give people who inquired after this odd name took a lot of time. And we New Yorkers are all about saving time. Could I live with a Chlothilde, whose name took 10 minutes to explain?
When I took Chlothilde to her first vet appointment in NYC, the assistant came out into the waiting area with a clipboard in her hand and a confused look on her face. I knew she had to be looking for me. “Ch…?” she said, reading the file on the clipboard. “Chlo… Cloth?… Cloth-ilde?” She pronounced the latter like Rothschild. I wondered how long it took the French nobility to get the pronunciation and spelling of that name down. Centuries?
Then again, I have a few name issues myself. My real name is Eileen. Don’t ever call me that—I won’t answer you. I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times I have had to tell people how to spell my name and/or having to correct customer service representatives on the telephone. “No, not Irene, Eileen.”
“Aileen, did you say?”
“Never mind. Just put down ‘Lee.’”
I have probably wasted the equivalent of seven weeks of my life trying to convey my own name. I didn’t want to spend the next 10 years going through the same thing with my little Chlothilde.
Thus, she became Chloe. And she really did become a Chloe. Who loves the snow-ee. On walks we go-ee. Her dog-boyfriend’s name is Rainbow-ee. Frenchifying her name, I officially dubbed her Chloe du Bois. Chloe of the Forest. And a fine white wine.
Some say it’s best not to change a shelter dog’s name. I get that. Many shelter dogs are already confused and frightened and traumatized. So a new name—a new foreign word—could actually add to the confusion. Dogs need consistency and a sense of safety, and keeping their name is one way to do that, a constant in the midst of many changes.
Others say that if you do change an adopted dog’s name, the new name should rhyme. That had left me with Muffy, Scruffy, Toughy, and (Chantay’s suggestion): “I’ve Had Enough-y.” Nah.
In Native American and many other spiritual traditions, a person is given a new name at certain milestone passages in life—the transition from childhood to adulthood, for example. Or when a major feat has been accomplished. I myself have been given quite a few spiritual names in the past two decades, ranging from Sangye Lhamo (Buddha Goddess) to Mirabai (Goddess of Poetry and Song). A Peruvian shaman even once told me my True Name, which I cannot reveal. These names are bestowed by teachers—by masters—and they usually involve elaborate initiation ceremonies. They are meant to not only name what we are, but what we aspire to be. (Eventually, I came to realize that they are actually one and the same, but that’s another story.)
Anyway, I told myself that by giving Chloe a new name, I was somehow initiating her into a new life with me. I hoped it would be a better life for my shelter dog—a new life full of romps through the forests (for her), and fine white wine (for me). I’ve taken her to France twice, by the way, and everyone there knows how to spell and pronounce Chlothilde.
I don’t have room in this column—or in this lifetime—to share with you all the nicknames I have now given Chloe. We all have zillions of nicknames for our dogs, after all. But when Chloe is acting cute, I call her Cute-tilde. When she is looking plump, I call her Fatty-tilde. When she is tired, she is Sleepy-tilde. You get the drill.
Sometimes I even accidentally call her Wallace—the name of my former dog. Wallace was the subject of the “Rex and the City” columns which used to appear here on the pages of Bark. For the past few months, I have been working on Volume II of Rex and the City. When I write, I go very deep into my “writing zone”—into the world of my book. Thus, when I take breaks, I often remain in that writing zone, and am not quite in the present moment. I’ll be staring out the window while waiting for a fresh pot of coffee to finish brewing, and this Spaniel mix will walk into the room and I’ll say: “Hi, Wallace,” before realizing it’s Chloe. She doesn’t seem to mind. A greeting by any other name is still a greeting. Plus, we know it’s nothing personal. My father often calls me by my sister’s name.
Anything said in kindness and joy is perceived as such.
Joy. Last summer, Chloe and I were out by the pool, tending to a rather unruly Provençal-type garden in upstate New York that was teeming with coneflowers and black-eyed Susans and giant hibiscus. They swayed in the heat, as if dancing in woozy love-bliss to a slow song. Chloe snuffled through the flower beds looking for rabbits (“Chloe, no!”), then took a dip in the nearby pool (“Who’s a Swimmy-tilde?”) and then barked at some deer who were hanging out near the pear trees, waiting for fruit to drop (“Who’s a fierce guard dog? Who’s a Fiercy-tilde?”). She looked so happy, and I felt so blessed to be living in such a place. (“Who’s a Happy-Tilde?) Then we walked back toward the house, through a small orchard with views of the Hudson River. Chloe trotted ahead of me with her tail held proud and high, as if I never would have found my own house without her guidance. (Who’s a Smarty-tilde?”). I had called her by five different names in a matter of minutes.
I decided, in the spirit of the moment, to call Chloe “Buffy” to see how she reacted. She was running ahead of me at the time, and when I called out this name, she turned and looked at me with a big dog smile on her face. She remembers! I thought. And she’s smiling! Maybe her life as a Buffy hadn’t been so horrible after all.
The bottom line is: dogs just like being called. Period.
And perhaps no dog—or anyone—can truly have only one name. Chloe is a Chloe and a Buffy and a Goofy and a Sweetie-tilde. She has all of these qualities, each of them expressed at different times. It’s the same with humans. We express different emotions, thoughts and feelings every moment of every day. No one person remains the same; nothing remains fixed. So, perhaps instead of one True Name, we have many.
Recently, I added yet another nickname to Chloe’s list: Buffy. Buffy the Stuffed Animal Slayer. Be afraid, toys. Be very afraid.
Culture: Stories & Lit
January 26 2012
By the time I adopted Chloe in 2004, she had already had at least five homes. Or so I’m told. (One can never be 100 percent sure of a shelter dog’s history.) By the time I adopted Chloe, I myself had had at least five homes, too. More like 50; I can’t say for sure because I honestly haven’t counted. For years, I’ve been telling myself that I’ll count all the places I’ve lived once I’m actually/permanently settled. But that hasn’t happened yet.
The two years before I adopted Chloe were particularly unsettled (to put it mildly). I left my marriage, left my apartment and left my job all in a span of four weeks. Then our beloved dog Wallace (of Rex and the City fame) died suddenly, and I was so devastated that I left NYC altogether. When a dog leaves your life, it feels as though Pure Love has left as well. It can take eons to recover.
I began what we now affectionately call the “Odd-yssey.” I moved to a Buddhist retreat center in Colorado, where I stayed for six months. There, I felt dislodged, uprooted and confused. I missed my dog and I missed my life. The problem was, I no longer knew what “my life” was.
My teachers said that such chaos was good for me. Chaos, they said, is the place from which stillness is born. Chaos is the precursor to creation.
It took months to realize they were right because, frankly, chaos sucks. In the meantime, I spent a lot of time with the resident Buddhist dog, a soulful Heeler mix named Maitri (which is defined as the root of compassion manifested as friendship with oneself). Maitri’s presence also brought me to a state of inner peace and stillness. Without all that sucky chaos. But it made me miss having a dog even more.
Anyway, after I left Colorado, I moved back to New York, first to an artist’s colony in Woodstock for a few months, then to Montauk, where I spent the summer at another artist’s colony. I seemed, back then, to be following art and good weather. And this journey toward maitri. After Montauk, I decided I couldn’t spend another winter in Woodstock and returned, at last, to my beloved New York City. Only in NYC have I ever truly felt at home. And yet it drives me nuts. Perhaps that is why I love it.
Once I had unpacked the final box in my new, large faded-beauty of an apartment on the Very Upper West Side, I felt ready to “settle down” again. And settling down, in my opinion, required a dog.
In the previous installment of these “Chloe Chronicles,” I wrote about finding and adopting a new dog over the Internet—sight unseen—and how I discovered Chloe (then named “Buffy from Michigan”) on Petfinder, and what I did to prepare for her arrival at her new home.
Home is the operative word here. I wanted to give this formerly homeless dog a home. The previous installment of the “Chloe Chronicles” ended with meeting Buffy for the first time at the airport in Newark, N.J. A nice volunteer named Pam had escorted the dog from Michigan. I remember how widely I smiled when I saw Pam wheeling a large dog crate toward me across the bright, broad hallway of the airport; I remember how I cried when Pam unlatched the crate and out came a liver-and-white Spaniel (who was also a possible Border Collie mix) wearing a new pink collar. I cried because I was moved by the hugeness of the moment. When you are united with the dog you are meant to have, you know that your life is about to get much, much better.
I could tell right away my Buffy was a sweet and loving dog, but she was clearly stressed. I could see it in the way she paced and panted and shivered. She couldn’t focus; she seemed to want to get away—but what was “away” and where would that be for a dog who knew so little of airports and the human world? She spun in circles, locked in a state of anxiety, her nervous system in overdrive. Chaos.
Some might have looked at this dog, labeled her high-strung and left her at the shelter. According to Pam, at least four people back in Michigan had done so already. But my heart went out to Buffy. I knew her behavior was temporary. And manageable. I knew her only real “problem” was that she hadn’t been loved. No maitri.
I knelt down and tried to hug Buffy, but she wouldn’t stay still. She didn’t even really look at me, or wag her tail, or offer an affectionate kiss. I was a bit hurt by this (for what is better than a doggie kiss?), but I tried to see things from her perspective: in the past month, she had passed through perhaps dozens of human hands—some of them caring and concerned, others not so much. Pam told me that in the past week alone, Buffy had been adopted out twice, then returned unceremoniously to the foster parents, who didn’t really seem to like her; then adopted by me over the phone, like some mail-order bride; then taken to a vet (by a caring volunteer); then drugged, spayed and released with a raw pink scar on her belly. Then she was driven to Detroit, pushed into a crate, stowed in a cargo hold and shipped to … Newark.
Then she met me. And who was I to Buffy’s frightened eyes but another human who may or may not be nice? A human who had had 50 homes?
So, while I was sad that Buffy did not to kiss me on our first “date,” I understood that these things take time. Just like any relationship. In fact, I had already made a solemn vow. I promised Buffy that, with me, she would always be safe, always be fed, always be comfortable, and always be happy and loved. With loving-kindness.
I hadn’t made many vows in this life. I suppose I didn’t trust myself enough. There was my wedding vow, with its until-death-do-us-part component that had proved tough to uphold. Later, I took a Bodhisattva vow, which basically lasts beyond death and which I have, thankfully, managed to uphold. And now there was this vow to Buffy. In a way, I took it more seriously than my wedding vow. Perhaps because I had failed at the marriage and wanted to succeed at something related to the love and care of another being. I think my ex, Ted, having also experienced dog love, would have understood.
“Come on, Buffy,” I said, taking the leash from Pam. “Ready to go to your new home?”
I thanked Pam and we said our goodbyes. Outside, I waited as Buffy peed quickly on a small strip of grass, and then we headed toward my car. Soon the dog and I were on I-95, on our way to NYC. She rode in the back seat; the crate was in the way-back. I thought that, like most dogs, she might enjoy putting her head out the window. Instead, she cowered in the footwell, as though convinced this car ride was going to deliver her to yet another destination of doom. “It’s all right,” I told her. “You’re with me now. I’m going to give you a home. I’m going to give both of us a home.”
She cocked her ears (in that intelligent canine way), which suggested that she was at least considering the possibility of something good coming.
Soon we were crossing the George Washington Bridge. The sight of that bridge and the Manhattan skyline along the Hudson River always fills me with a sense of renewal and hope—New York, New York! The famous Frank Sinatra song came to mind, and I sang to Buffy. “We’re going to be a part of it, New York, New York.”
I felt a certain camaraderie with the dog: two transients coming together, both of us nervous, both of us reeling from the past. Both of us craving the same thing: safety; comfort; enough food to sustain us; and a warm, soft place to sleep. Personally, I also wanted fame and fortune and a great wardrobe. But when I narrowed it down to basic needs, to those cravings for survival, it came to me: I can do this.
Slowly, Buffy crawled onto the seat and looked out the window. Perhaps she smelled the river. Or perhaps she sensed my optimism and decided to join me.
We pulled onto Riverside Drive at 156th and found a parking space right in front of our building. I took this to be a good sign. Realtors call my neighborhood Audubon Terrace, but it is basically the northernmost slice of Harlem. A bafflingly beautiful neighborhood, it features elegant, turn-of-the-century apartment buildings; wide, curved streets; stately plane trees, and a cluster of historical Beaux-Arts buildings that house museums and cultural institutions. Yet there is an air of desolation and disappointment about the place: built in glory, destined for stardom, yet over and forgotten before it had even really begun.
The good news is that Audubon Terrace is a great dog neighborhood. In fact, I had researched the area and made sure it had dog perks before I chose that apartment. Riverside Park was within walking distance, and NYC’s largest and most wonderful dog run—George’s Run at Fort Tryon Park—was within driving distance.
I walked Buffy around the historic district to see if she needed to pee again. The limestone buildings of the museum complex took on a sepia tone at night, which always made me nostalgic for an earlier era, but in a good way. Plus, I had a dog now.
This particular route led us past an historic cemetery (where the famous painter of birds, John James Audubon, is buried and which offers plenty of sidewalk grass). Buffy did not pee on this grass as I thought she might. Instead, the first thing she did when I brought her into my apartment was pee on my bed. She looked nervous while she was doing it, and guilty and confused, but I didn’t punish her. I’m all about positive reinforcement. No raised voices, no violence, no “corrections.” Instead, I turned my body away (to show I wasn’t a threat) and waited until she hopped off the bed herself on her own time.
It’s not that I was thrilled that my new dog had peed on my thermapedic mattress. But it was replaceable. What was important was that my new dog felt safe and that we bond. (For the record: I clicker-trained her to relieve herself outside within 24 hours. So there.)
It was almost midnight at that point, and I was tired. I filled Buffy’s water dish and gave her a bit of food (which I had made earlier that day), but she ignored both. I understood; chaos kills the appetite.
That night, neither of us slept. Buffy paced and whined and panted—all signs of extreme anxiety—and I couldn’t get her to settle down. She rushed around the apartment, inspecting doors and windows as though looking for a way out. I tried to hug her, but she kept squirming out of my arms. I tried to distract her with treats and toys, but she couldn’t focus, couldn’t calm down.
Around 2 am, I started to get anxious myself. What had I done, adopting such an anxious, troubled dog? For the second time. Was I a masochist when it came to doggie relationships? I kept reminding myself that although Wallace had been troubled at first, Ted and I had helped him become a happy, loving, trusting dog through patience, training, conditioning and love. I reminded myself that Buffy’s anxious behavior was perfectly reasonable and logical given her history. All we needed was time.
At 4 am, I started feeling spacey from lack of sleep. Buffy was still pacing and panting, her nails clicking on the wooden floor, so I got up and put her in her crate. I’m not a fan of crates per se, but I needed some rest. Plus, there was a chance she might see the crate as her safe haven, as some dogs do. But Buffy became even more agitated, throwing her body against the crate and whining. It was almost 5 by then, so I figured I might as well get up and start a new day.
I got dressed and picked up the leash and the keys. I remembered that these two gestures, plus the sounds that accompanied them, were enough to send Wallace into a frenzy of excitement. But Buffy took no notice, because these gestures and sounds weren’t yet cues for her. This made me sad—no one had walked her.
“We’re going on our first walk!” I said in that singsong voice we always use with our dogs. “Our first morning together in New York City.” I clipped the leash onto her collar. “See? A new leash on life.”
We took the same route we had walked the night before—around the beautiful four-block museum complex. I would continue this for weeks to help Buffy orient herself and establish a routine. She turned out to be a very fine leash-walker, mostly because I had one of those 20-foot retractable leashes and she was slow.
She relieved herself near the cemetery and looked, well, relieved. I took this as another good sign. And—here’s the best part—when we approached our building, she turned and looked at me as if to say, This is the place, right?
“You smart dog!” I said. “What a smartie.”
When we got upstairs, Buffy went immediately to her water dish—she remembered—and lapped it up. That sound! It’s so sweet to us dog-lovers, isn’t it? A thirsty dog quenching her thirst. A basic need, simply met. Yet it felt profound.
I had a dog again. After all that Odd-ysseying.
My friend Melissa always says: “We get the dog we need. And dogs get the people they need.”
And just like that, Buffy and I found a home.
Lee Harrington talks to novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell
October 4 2011
Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of several books, including American Salvage, a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest novel, Once Upon a River (W.W. Norton), is being hailed as a “dramatic and rhapsodic American odyssey,” with a central character who’s a “female Huckleberry Finn.” We at Bark have a particular affinity for Bonnie, whom we published when she was a relatively unknown writer. Her quirky story “My Dog Roscoe” (in which a woman is convinced her boyfriend has been reincarnated as a stray dog) appeared in our book Dog Is My Co-Pilot, and her comic essay “What My Dog Has Eaten Lately” appeared in Howl, our humor anthology.
Lee Harrington: We all know you are a devoted dog lover. Tell us about some of the dogs who have appeared in your fiction.
Bonnie Jo Campbell: My first story collection, Women & Other Animals, contains two stories that feature dogs prominently. “Old Dogs” is the story of three older women who live in poverty with four older dogs (all named after Shakespearean heroes). My goal was to show how the dogs and women bring comfort and dignity to one another’s difficult lives.
In “The Fishing Dog,” a young woman without resources lives on the river with a difficult man who is much older than she is. Across the river lives a gentler, kinder man, whose dog sits by the river’s edge and hunts for fish. The narrator becomes obsessed with this dog and gradually, by extension, falls in love with the new man.
LH: I understand that this story largely inspired your now-famous novel, Once Upon a River. In the final pages of that book, Margo decides to adopt a recently orphaned dog. What does this say about Margo and her transition from child to adult?
BJC: Margo has always wanted to share her life with one or more dogs, but her situation has never allowed it. Her parents forbade her from adopting a dog while she lived at home, so she hung out with her cousins’ dogs. When she left home to make her way in the world, she was never in a stable enough situation to properly care for a dog. Finally, at the end of the story, Margo knows she is ready to care for someone.
LH: How do you decide to include a dog in a particular scene or story?
BJC: I’m a realist writer, so I try to work with what seems naturally to flow from a situation or a character. Many people need a dog in their lives to make them whole and happy, and that’s true of fictional characters as well. Many of the characters in my stories, especially the women, live their lives entwined with the lives of animals.
LH: In many works of fiction (and in life, actually) dogs are included as accessories or part of the setting rather than as characters. To me, a character is a being who has the capacity to change the direction of the story. Where do you stand on that — dogs as characters vs. accessories?
BJC: Agreed! A dog is generally too powerful a force to pose as mere decoration. I won’t address the misguided real-life situations, but it would be a shame to waste such a potentially active story element. In movies and plays, almost any dog who wanders onstage will steal the show. Of course, it depends upon the story itself — every narrative operates according to its own rules — but in general, we writers should always be looking to where the energy and empathy lie in a story, and a dog is a good place to start.
LH: Your beloved three-legged dog Rebar died a few years ago, and travel and work commitments have kept you from getting another dog. What has your new life as a successful writer and professor been like, sans chien?
BJC: I’ve missed the company of dogs desperately. I’m all over everybody else’s dogs, like a childless auntie who can’t keep her hands off her nieces and nephews. Some of what I wrote about Margo’s longing for a dog in Once Upon a River was what I’ve been feeling. I plan to stop roaming soon and find myself a new canine companion, one who can get along with my two donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote, who live on my mom’s farm. Rebar was great around the barnyard, though I didn’t like the way he chewed donkey dung. I still dream about Rebar. The writing life requires a lot of sitting quietly in a room, and that makes a lot more sense when there’s a dog beside you.
News: Guest Posts
February 16 2011
Once I was in love in Viggo Mortensen. Yes, I know that this was just a fantasy, a celebrity crush, and that I was yet another not-twenty-year-old woman who had a crush on Viggo, who fantasized about being swept away on a white horse by Aragorn. And I know that Viggo, to date, does not know that I exist.But there is one thing that sets me apart from all the other Oh, Viggo won’t you rip my bodice masses: Viggo Mortensen knows my dog exists. He kissed her. And she kissed him back. And then he kissed her again. On the mouth. I kid you not. Before I explain how their First Kiss came to be, let me first say that I’ve never had a serious celebrity crush before. I don’t have the time have a crush on a real person, let alone someone unattainable and two-dimensional (referring to their photographs, not their personalities). Secondly, I don’t even know who most celebrities are. I don’t watch TV or read gossip magazines or even see all that many movies. (Yes, I live in a bubble and that bubble is called Woodstock.) And I certainly have never followed celebrity gossip. My sister fills me in on all the crucial details (who has been outed and who remains closeted) but other than that I stick to my fictional world of novels. I am a typical Aquarian: head in the clouds, not grounded to reality, preferring to linger in the safer fictional worlds of my own creation. Except for the New Yorker magazine. And The New York Times. But for eight years I refused to read the Times because I couldn’t stand to see the words “President” and “Bush” strung together. That’s eight years without reading movie reviews. So how is it that I managed to hear of Viggo during that eight-year drought? I discovered his poetry. It was the summer of 2003, and I was visiting the apartment of a semi-famous Beat poet whom I was interviewing for Poets and Writers magazine. I happened to pull down a slim, interesting-looking volume of poetry from the shelves by one Viggo Mortensen. The name rang a bell, so I thumbed through the pages, and by the first page I was hooked. I don’t have the room to quote any of his poems here, but let’s just say they are honest and soulful and tender. The prose is delicate but the force of emotion behind them is huge. I could imagine them being whispered in a quiet room. I found myself being moved to tears. And the only poet, to date, who has moved me to tears is Rumi. So that’s saying a lot. I have a heart of stone, you see. But Viggo cracked it open. “Remind me who this poet Viggo Mortensen is?” I called out to the Beat poet. “He’s that cat from Lord of the Rings, man,” my friend answered. “He’s everywhere, man. Haven’t you heard of him?” “Oh, right,” I said. It was then I had to confess that I had never seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was then I had to confess that I hadn’t even read Tolkein’s book series, because I have always been far too serious and deludedly intolerant of “unserious” books, and had therefore declared, at an early age, that had no use for elves and dwarves and hobbits. As a child I read Jane Austen and Hermann Hesse, and could not be bothered with furry-footed midgets. “You can have that book, if you’d like,” the poet said. “I read it twice. It’s good. That cat’s got it all. Talent and looks. Fuck him.” Would that I could. Over the next few days, I read his poems over and over again, and fell more and more in love with the writer of these words. Then I began to Google him. And my crush quickly began to border on obsession. My cool icy exterior had melted and my life has never been the same. First there were his pictures. Need I saw I was astonished—absolutely astonished—at how good looking this man was? (And still is, I’m sure … eyes as blue as the sea!) Then there was the fact that our Viggo not only was a magnificent physical specimen, but also a talented painter, photographer and musician. And he’s a Democrat. Perfect for an Aquarian artist like me. I passed the next few months in a Viggo-obsession haze. I won’t bore you with the web-trolling, image down-loading, fan-site drooling details. We all know what it’s like to have internet obsessions. There I was, near 40, with writing deadlines and a life, and I was spending my nights googling him, or googling “Viggo” + “girlfriend” to see who was blessed with his presence; I joined chat rooms and fan sites, where thousands of middle-aged women would discuss the colors of Viggo’s ties, and his favorite flavor of yogurt. Once, I even tried to see a picture of him naked, because some seedy website promised this, but it was a trap, of course. I was lead to some insidious porn sight and got infected with some computer virus, which caused non-stop images of threesomes and blow jobs to pop up on my computer screen. I was certain even sensitive, feminist Viggo would have been embarrassed. Thanks to Google, I found out Viggo was a lover of dogs. Perfect! I am a lover of dogs and a writer of dogs and part of my job is to write about lovers of dogs for Bark magazine. So, long story short, I contacted Viggo’s office and asked if he would like to contribute any poems to our magazine, and the answer—Halleluiah—was yes, and thus I acquired an essay of his for Bark quite easily (see Sept/Oct. 2006 issue). I now had Viggo’s email address in my personal contact list. And no, I didn’t stalk him. I only stalked him in my mind. I created an elaborate scenario regarding our meeting and eventual marriage. It was love at first sight—he caught my eye at some film premiere— (my movie, of course, because in this fantasy I wrote an Oscar-winning screenplay in which he starred). Then we dated. Then we traveled the world and he proposed to me at some sacred site—say, the Mayan ruins. Then we had a small, intimate wedding ceremony (you know, just close friends like Orlando Bloom and Sean Bean), which included a Native American sweat lodge purification ceremony followed by a barefoot reception on the beach. Oh, what fun we had together! We would grow old together, and remain lovers and soul mates until the end of this lifetime and beyond. Then, in March, I received a press release from Viggo’s office stating that his latest volume of poetry and illustrations, Coincidence of Memory, was being published by his own Perceval Press, and that a book signing party would be taking place at such-and-such gallery in New York City. I was going to meet him in the flesh! I went on a diet (speaking of flesh) and bought some new clothing. I spent two weeks sleeping with a tray of teeth-whitener between my teeth, which caused a lot of pain but was worth the effort. Two days before the event I had my legs waxed. One day before I got a manicure and pedicure (something one never does in Woodstock) and splurged on a bottle of mysterious organic perfume, which claimed to contain pheromones that would prove irresistible to eligible mating men. On the day of the book party, I had my hair cut, colored, glossed and straight-ironed. Then I recited some positive love affirmations and Wiccan incantations regarding the love-at-first-sight that was bound to occur. And decided, at the last minute, to bring my dog. My cute, sweet, attention-grabbing, man-loving dog. What was I thinking? Once, on a first date, I invited a man to a party in Tribeca that I knew knew Uma Thurman would be attending. Imagine being in the same room with such a shining beacon. I felt like a flashlight whose batteries were half-dead. You’d think I would have learned my lesson after that, but no. I had no idea my dog Chloe was going to steal the Viggo show. Neither did the other 800 women in attendance at the book signing. This was a small space, mind you: A contemporary, steel-and-glass gallery with polished white floors, and Viggo’s excellent paintings lining the walls. Viggo was at the far end of the room, sitting behind a long table piled with books. The table served as a kind of barrier between him and the throng of women. He looked a bit dazed and uncomfortable. It’s possible he was hungover, too. In fact, everyone looked dazed. All the women had hungry, pleading, somewhat desperate looks on their faces, as if they felt this would be their one, only and final chance at the happiness they knew they deserved. They had brought copies of his older books to be signed, and photographs of him, and even new copies of Lord of the Rings. And everyone had a camera, and the room was full of the sounds of flashes and clicks. I hadn’t brought a camera, but I had brought a dog, so the crowds parted for me. They had to, because Chloe would have shimmied past them and knocked them aside if not. I don’t know what had gotten into her, but she was bee-lining, it seemed, toward Viggo. Perhaps if she too could not resist his magnetic pull. Chloe pulled me all the way to Viggo, and when he saw her his tired face lit up. Hey, I thought, that look was supposed to be saved for me. But Chloe? Viggo smiled broadly when Chloe reached his table, and he invited her around to his side of the table. He began to make smoochy noises, and he invited her to place her paws his lap, and I watched as Chloe kissed him and kissed him and he said “aw” and kissed her back. He stroked her fur. He told her she was so sweet, so pretty. She wagged her tail; she wagged her body. Viggo called over to an assistant to see if someone might bring over a few squares of cheese. “The good cheese,” he said. “The Spanish goat cheese.” I was both tickled and crestfallen. Not once did Viggo look at me, or admire my tall Italian boots or my frilly French blouse. Not once did we lock eyes (his eyes were as blue as the sea!) or fall in love. No, it seemed my fantasy man had fallen in love with Chloe. I’m surprised he didn’t slip her a key to his hotel room, which is something groupies apparently do. The caterers brought over some cheese—on a tray!—and Chloe took the treats from Viggo’s hand, and kissed him again. Then, to show her pleasure, she rolled around on the floor a bit, sashaying upside down like a fish and splaying her legs in the air. Just what I would like to have done. I was surprised at how crushed I felt! I felt ugly, undesirable, foolish, invisible. My months of fantasy-hopes, dashed in an instant. Wiped away. I know it was silly to be upset, but why can’t we dream? And if we’re going to dream of a Perfect Man then why not dream about a real-live perfect man? I dreamed, I came, I saw, I was not seen. Eventually Viggo told Chloe, in a sweet baby voice, that it was time to say goodbye, because he had to sign some books. Viggo’s attention was drawn elsewhere, and I was left with my hand on Chloe’s leash, smiling dumbly at no one, staring into a void. My fifteen minutes of fame had ended after about sixty seconds. I wish I’d had the courage to at least talk to him. I wanted to tell him how much I admired his writings, and his paintings and photographs. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t there because he was a gorgeous and hot actor. In fact, I even wanted to say, “I haven’t even seen all your films.” But that would be offensive. Mostly I wanted to tell him I loved him for what was inside of him: a poet’s soul. I’m a writer, after all. So I know how nice it can feel to be told someone likes your work. But instead, I stepped away, to give other women their chance at happiness. I went to get myself some cheese, and a huge honking glass of wine. I wonder if people like Viggo have any idea how epic our encounters are with them can feel to us. I wonder if they realize we go through these high highs and these low lows, and question our self-worth, based on how they react to us. It’s really quite silly. I fully admit this. But it does not take away the sting. While I sipped my wine, I watched the other women. Chloe stood at my side, drooling as she stared unblinkingly at the cheese buffet. And she wasn’t the only being in the room drooling. Every woman there was staring at Viggo with incredulous, nervous, giddy smiles. A bunch of middle-aged women, fidgeting like teenagers. We straightened our skirts; pulled down our blouses to reveal more cleavage (mine was fantastic that night, by the way). In fact, we were all acting as if we were in the presence of Apollo. Or Adonis. Or an enlightened master. But I don’t think Viggo would like being compared to a god or a guru. He just wants to be a regular guy. I mean, it must be hard to be bombarded with all that adulation. At times, I sensed Viggo’s discomfort. I saw how he tried to deflect the attention away from himself and steer it toward a fellow writer, whose book Perceval had also published. This was a book signing party, after all, not a Bacchanalian rite. At times the vibe was that of a feeding frenzy a few moments before someone ladles the chum into the water. As the hours wore on and the crowd grew larger and the bodies pressed in, his smile seemed pinched and somewhat pained. The poor dear had reached his limit. Then I thought of how his face had lit up when he saw Chloe. I realized that she was the only being who loved him not because he was the celebrity Viggo Mortensen, but because he was a simple, kind, genuine and dog-loving human. I realized that even my loving Viggo for his poetry was shallow and grasping. It was shallow, in part, because I wanted him to love me back. And marry me and all that... But Chloe, she just kissed him without expecting anything in return. She gave him love him in a direct and genuine way, without disproportionate worship. She gave him the brief moment of happiness he deserved. That we all deserve. I wish I could learn to love like that. A few years have passed and I still get embarrassed when I talk about my all-consuming crush and its devastating come-down. But then I had a conversation with one of my friends, who had had a similar obsession on Orlando Bloom. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” I remember her telling me. “This crush has awakened something in you. Since your divorce you’ve been kind of shut down toward men. You should be thankful that this person has brought back in you your capacity to love.” “And lust,” I said. “Oh yes, that too.” I haven’t Googled Viggo in years, but sometimes I remember that it can just be so much fun to love someone. Now, any time I remember Chloe flirting happily and unabashedly with my fake-boyfriend, I remember all the happy times Viggo and I had together (in my head). Love is something you give, after all. It doesn’t matter if he does not love you back.
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