Susan Strempek Shea

Susan Strempek Shea's eighth book, Sundays in America, tells of a year of Sundays she spent worshipping at Protestant churches nationwide.

The Winter Baby

You can time the moment you fall for your next puppy as much as you can time the moment you fall for anyone. Thus, Bisquick joined my family last November.

He is our first winter baby. The six previous dogs who blessed my life were chosen—or, in the case of the first of three consecutive childhood Luckys, won at a raffle—in warmer weather. Their training took place during the first warm breaths of spring, or alongside riotously blooming gardens, or on paths made golden by autumn leaves. In those milder seasons, even the requisite nighttime forays into the backyard held payoffs for the wee hour during which nature called. I stood present in pajamas witnessing not only progress in bladder control, but overhead miracles including a questioning owl, the Milky Way, the aurora borealis.

The realities of the New England calendar meant Bisquick was shivering even on the sunny afternoon he was placed into my arms. I didn’t know how to break it to him that temperatures would not climb significantly for a good six months. Nor did I know how to remind my husband—or myself—of that same fact.

We hadn’t had a puppy for nine years. The last one arrived in late summer, around the time Princess Diana departed this world. Pup Leo’s 3 AM walkabouts ended with a check of the latest, saddest update from CNN. Upon Bisquick’s arrival, our region was gearing for its cruelest months, during which I nightly pre-heat the bed with a fleet of five hot water bottles nestled beneath thick flannel sheets, a woolen blanket, two cloudlike comforters and, finally, a fat retired sleeping bag zipped open for maximum coverage.

Suddenly, in the deepest parts of the night, from a crate situated three feet from my side of the mattress, an English Setter the size of a rolled-up pair of tube socks was making a freight-train-sized racket, commanding Tommy or me to emerge.

And so began what we soon had down to a science. At the first scratching on the crate’s wire mesh door, one of us would spring up and dress from layers laid atop the box: neckwarmer, watch cap, gloves, insulated Wellingtons, my late father’s giant hooded parka.

With pup released and charging ahead, it was then down the stairs and into any combination of weather: sleet, snow, hail, a frozen crust coating it all and a nasty wind pushing.

When it was my turn, I’d lead Bisquick to a patch of yard on the far side of the driveway and walk a small sleepy circle while he spiraled in his own. I’d hug myself, pull the neckwarmer up to my eyes, yearn for the warmth inside the house and its solitary glowing window. I’d praise the pup for delivering the goods, then coax him back inside for a few more hours of sleep for all.

In keeping with the rules of puphood, some of these forays had to be unnecessary, no more than an opportunity to explore a snow bank previously unscaled, to stand and sniff the mystery-bearing wind. And during one of Bisquick’s for-the-heck-of-it rambles into the dark, when he paused in his sniffing to stare into the woods, I did the same. I saw nothing, but that nothing was the start of something—of my finally looking around. Listening. Despite the late hour and the low mercury, consciously taking in the moment. So big was the sky. So electrical the constellations. So quiet the neighborhood. So symphonic the creaking trees. So small the puppy at my feet. So slow the realization that these outings were for me, as well. My reverie ended only because Bisquick had become the one raring to go inside.

These days—and nights—Bisquick has more or less mastered a grownup schedule, but it still can have its surprises. I can’t say that my waking words aren’t curses some mornings when he heads for the door at 2:50, but when Tommy later asks me what it was like outside in the middle of the night, I am honest when I answer “Absolutely beautiful.”

You can stand in one place and wish to be somewhere else. Or you can, as the wise man said, be here now. Puphood is fleeting. Take it as a gift. Even when it’s wrapped in snow.

Culture: DogPatch
Puppy Bowl V
A new team takes the field.

We can hardly wait for that hallowed winter Sunday when, along with millions of other Americans, we crowd around our television and cheer as our favorites run, tackle and tumble toward a hard-won touchdown. During a break in the action, we may also flip the channel to the Super Bowl.

Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl trotted onto the Discovery Channel’s Super Bowl Sunday lineup in 2004, offering three action-packed hours of outrageously adorable puppies frolicking on a miniature football field. Though it was originally added to the day’s broadcast schedule just for fun, it has become a record-setter.

“The idea was supposed to be ‘Who’s going to watch anything but the big game?’” says Melinda Toporoff, executive producer for Animal Planet. “It almost started as a joke, like the Yule log on your TV screen. But it’s turned into a cult hit.”

Last year, more than 8 million people tuned in, making Puppy Bowl IV the highest rated program in its series and Animal Planet’s top-rated adult-viewed telecast of the year. It’s hard to resist a screen full of lovable pups cavorting in a 10-by-19-foot stadium constructed in the studios of the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet’s parent company, in Silver Spring,Md. So what if they occasionally drop the ball—or any of the dozens of toys that litter the field? So what if they occasionally cause a foul —isn’t that what the referee and his cleaning products are for? And when the players need a nap, cue the Bissell Kitty Half-Time Show and its stage full of cuddly kittens beneath disco lights.

“We wanted to play up the whole concept of the spectacle that is the Super Bowl,” explains Rob Burk, executive producer for Discovery Studios. That includes drafting all types of athletes.

One of the few facts Toporoff and Burk would divulge about the monumental Puppy Bowl V, to be broadcast Sunday, February 1, is that all players will be from shelters in the Washington, D.C., area (many of the previous bowls’ contestants were from private homes). Adoptions, which have been encouraged throughout the series, will be a major theme this year.

Staffers worked with Petfinder.com to reach out to the shelter community for likely prospects. Forty-one puppies made the cut and packed the locker room (a production facility conference space) for the two-day filming early last October. As usual, humane association and shelter personnel were present.

“We kept them well fed and hydrated,” Toporoff said of the team members. “We want them to rest, but they’re pups and love to play.” And when they do, each move is narrated by Harry Kalas, famed broadcaster for the NFL and the Philadelphia Phillies.

The game is over too soon, but is frequently rebroadcast to the delight of fans, some of whom hold Puppy Bowl parties and blog about the experience. And who, this year more than ever, might be inspired to visit a shelter to find their own most valuable players.