Culture: Stories & Lit
IF NO OTHER LISTENER Except myself and the dogs, would I write Poems for them? Rhythmic yips and a growl, Refrain of woofs, Their names repeated twice, A high yowl sliding down a rail To a quavering whine. And they do like some arrangements Better than others, they go from fast to slow. Lots of range in the howl, And the yaps, staccato, snappy as orders, Until I can’t continue their poem Because they are standing on my chest Licking my face, adding impromptu yelps. Of course I would write for them, Would take their critique seriously, Would collaborate with them on a dog poetics Which would change of course with every passing litter. Poems about the chase, about the snap Of jaws, about doggy humping and birthing, No poems of death or poems of writing. A lot might be said of such a poetics If no one were listening, only me and the dogs. THE SOUND OF DOGS BREATHING The sounds of dogs breathing in the house, Their breaths rising and falling In darkened rooms. If late at night I pad to the kitchen Following the night lights And a vague thirst Paw pads follow me, A change in the rhythm Of inhalation, a sigh. Back to the bedroom, the breaths Relax, become regular. The night’s activity has shut down, And I am not alone. THE WOLF he can hardly walk for all the myth he’s bearing, werewolf and night marauder, bloody-mouthed killer, though we remember the wolf of Perugia St Francis made a deal with, no more eating people and you’ll be fed, and the wolf became a model citizen, was mourned at death, and buried at the city gate. lone wolf, wolf-whistle, don’t wolf your food. my father had a wolf-dog as pet, not at home in either house or pen, inside knocked over tables and lamps, at night howled outside light leaking from his teeth, until my father opened up the chain-link gate, invited him in.
Culture: Stories & Lit
One of the worst things I have ever witnessed was my dog being hit by a car. I don’t have a kid, and I imagine that would be a million times worse, obviously, but I do have dogs. I don’t dress them up in outfits, much, or let them share my ice cream, often, or call them my child, unless they’re doing something particularly impressive, so I’m not one of those “Real Housewife” people just yet.
The dog in question was named Blue, and he was an ex-racing Greyhound. He was missing most of his teeth and was short almost all of the sandwiches in his picnic basket, if I’m honest. He also had a giant ham tongue that couldn’t help but fall out of his mouth, what with the missing teeth. He was goofy and shy and weird in all the right ways; my boyfriend and I taught him to wag his tail and that not all humans were bad. Some were quite nice, in fact, and would not mind if he swiped a hot dog right off their plate in a cheeky way like he might’ve seen in a movie once if he hadn’t been living in a tiny, cramped cage and had barely seen the light apart from the few hours a day he was made to run like his life depended on it—because his life did depend on it.
We were leaving the house for our usual morning walk when the little bugger slipped his collar. This was before we knew that Greyhounds require harnesses because, quite understandably, they don’t like something around their neck being pulled, even if that pulling is ever so gentle and just so they can go out and play. They also go like a shot if they see anything exciting—a cat or a smaller dog or a bird or a shiny thing. So you need to be one step ahead of them. They’re like toddlers, I imagine.
Off Blue went, like a shot, after nothing in particular. All he knew was that he was free. From what I don’t know; he had three beds, including ours, for cripes’ sake. But I sort of got it.
I shouted his name and my boyfriend chased him around the neighbourhood. But we hadn’t had him very long, and what dog likes being caught? Even if the humans chasing him let him steal their hot dogs and sleep in their bed. It’s confusing being a newly adopted rescue dog.
Then I saw the car.
The scream I let out when I saw my dog heading straight for it was disturbing. It scared people, but none more so than myself. I really didn’t know I could scream like that. I’m a quiet, shy writer who can happily go days without uttering a word. My scream made people come out of their houses.
The car screeched to a stop. Blue had hit the car but bounced clean off like a rubber ball. I feared the worst, but he was suddenly in my arms, and alive. He was shaken up and had a little blood on his face, but seemed basically fine.
I was not fine. I had thought that was it. Game over. This beautiful, idiotic new addition to my life who I actually suspected made my life complete in some way was almost taken from me when I had only just found him.
We took him to the vet to be checked out, and everyone kept saying how lucky he was. “Maybe you should have called him Lucky,” the vet nurse said, and I said no, he’s called Blue. I wanted to tell her that he even had his own theme song, but knew that would sound weird. Nothing as strange as dog folk.
As it turned out, he was fine. No permanent damage. No aversions to soccer mums in SUVs … well, no more than he should have had.
I was not fine. The scream I let out came from somewhere I didn’t know existed, some deepest, darkest cavern of despair, one I’d wrongly thought I had visited during my teenage years and again later, after a particularly shitty relationship. But no. It seems I had never actually even peered down that particular cavern.
A few years later, Blue developed a tumor on his leg, and we eventually had to have him euthanized. Not before weeks of forcing him to take medication and watching him deteriorate daily. But we were selfish, and wanted to keep him with us as long as we could. One of my last memories of Blue is wrestling with him on the kitchen floor, trying to force him to take his meds because he was dying and I needed him to stay alive, and he just needed to swallow the goddamn pill. It was traumatic for both of us.
When he finally went, it was much calmer and quieter than that scene in the street.
I ate a lot of toast with peanut butter during those last days of nursing him, but after he was gone, I couldn’t touch the stuff. Just the thought of it made my mouth go funny. I know now that grief comes in many forms. Not a day goes by that I don’t want that happy, goofy boy back, rather than the pain of losing him twice. Which is how it felt.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A YEAR INTO RAISING OUR PUPPY, Nora Ephron, Brian and I can’t help but compare it to our experience with our first dog, Ezra Pound. Nora and Ezra, black Lab mixes, were named after 20th-century writers. Their personalities, though, are quite different, starting with their experiences and lifestyles.
Ezra was 100 percent city dog. For most of his 11 years, he lived in a duplex apartment in an 1846 brownstone. A lot of stairs to hike up and down. Three times a week, he went to doggie daycare, and the other two days, he was out in the neighborhood with his dog walker and a pack of friends. An active week, for sure, but very urban and predictable.
Nora, even in her first year, has already had more of the country life, splitting her time between a high-rise apartment during the week, where she attends Dog City, and our house in rural Hudson Valley on the weekends. There, she explores in an orchard, visits sheep and goats, and has a donkey boyfriend on the farm next door. Ernie the donkey lives in his own outbuilding. When he sees or hears little Nora, he trots down to greet her at the fence. She wags her tail. He flirts back with a kick. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen next.
Nora’s first weeks were spent in a foster home on Long Island, where she lived with a group of six dogs. Early on, even when she was as tiny as a thimble, she learned to be social with big dogs. On top of her typical puppy energy, Nora is optimistic, always angling to play. And, unlike many dogs, she actually likes being held and hugged. Ezra was hit-or-miss friendly, more inclined to lean against you than sit on your lap, but Nora loves everyone: big, small, hairy, tall. Strangers—animal or human—are simply best friends she hasn’t made yet.
Then, there’s her elimination routine. Nora pees all the time. Six, seven times a day, she flags us or whines for a run outside. Not a big pish, mind you, more of a quick tinkle. I don’t think it’s a breed thing, and we’re training her the same as we did with Ezra, with a target goal of four potty trips max per day. Is this a gender thing, we wonder? Are we more indulgent when she has to go? Do we leave the water bowl down too long? Do girls just pee more?
Limiting our comparisons to the dogs, though, isn’t fair.
We’re also part of the equation. Ezra was our first dog together. Everything was new for me, from walking Ezra past skateboarders to skillfully opening the end of a plastic poop bag with one hand. With Ezra, I was nervous all the time, busy reading nutrition labels and worrying about his feelings. Both of us attended every vet appointment. Raising Nora, on the other hand, is a more casual endeavor. We’re more confident, less manic. She whines all the time and we laugh. She eats her dinner, or she doesn’t. Brian texts me about vet appointments. We didn’t even cover the electric outlets. (Please don’t call child services.)
I asked my favorite canine researcher, Julie Hecht, about gender differences. She pointed me to Bark articles on the topic as well as some hard-core research on the web. My takeaway from those sources was that testosterone has some kind of role and, yes, more research is needed.
Next, I reached out to my own pet-owner network. My friend Victor, parent to Maya, an six-year-old ex-racing Greyhound, thinks that female dogs are identical to males “except they growl less, pee more discretely, rarely step in their own poop, and that whole six-nipple thing.” Nora’s foster mother, Susan, has an even larger focus group, having hosted more than 150 dogs in the last two years. The biggest difference that she’s noticed is tension between two female adult dogs who seem less motherly when together, while two Husky-mix boys nurture pups “to the point where we have had young pups try to nurse off of them.”
I look down at Nora curled up on a blanket and wonder if she would have gotten along with her brother Ezra. I suspect that she probably would have worshipped him, and he would have tolerated her: the spunky little sister with a jackass for a boyfriend, who always, for some reason, has to go out for a tinkle.
Culture: Stories & Lit
When I tell my dog that she is my angel, as I often do, I mean it quite literally. In many ways she is more familiar to me than anyone or anything else on earth, and she has filled my life with great affection, guarding and protecting me with her love. I suppose she could be any old dog, and I’d love her back just the same. But there she is, who she is, and however I look at her, she is a major part of my life. This is by no means the first tribute I have written to her.
I got my dog Lily by chance, almost by mistake. I was trying to stop smoking and felt terrible and bereft. A good friend, meaning to distract me, suggested I get a dog. I thought I realized in a flash of nicotine deprivation that all I wanted was a puppy, that all I needed was just one. No matter that I had just moved to a new apartment managed by an uncompromising cat-owner who had made me promise I would never get a dog. I thought if I just bought a smallenough dog, no one would notice. My thinking was a bit hazy. So two weeks later I went out and bought her. She came from a chain pet store in a mall. She was very little. I hoped my apartment manager would think she was a cat. I’ve never told anyone how much she cost.
She is supposedly a purebred Cocker Spaniel, but most people look skeptical. Even the vet I took her to the next day wasn’t sure. He did say she was definitely a runt, probably from a puppy mill, and told me she had a heart murmur and a bad case of mites. He implied I’d paid too much for her, whatever the sum had been. But I didn’t care: she was mine, and that was all that mattered.
She certainly doesn’t look purebred. She just looks like herself: small and black and somewhat stout, with an unmistakably dogged demeanor. When she runs across the yard to check the compost heap each day, it can best be described as a galumph. Her long, heavy ears flop up and down, as if she were trying to take off, albeit awkwardly, into the wind. Her paws look enormous, but they’re all fur. In the fall she gathers clumps of burrs, in the winter her legs and belly are all snowballed. In the summer she is covered with mud from the pond in the neighboring field. She is always messy.
Food (and drink) is a very big deal with her. She likes to kick her dish around both before and after a meal, and she will bark vigorously at a bottle of beer. Since my daughter PanPan arrived and learned to throw her food, Lily has taken up a military pose in front of the high chair during mealtimes. She sits stock-still, looking up fervently, shifting her weight only occasionally from side to side. When she does not get the food that everyone else is getting, she assumes a sincere and sorrowful expression that makes her look rather like Ronald Reagan, but I still love her. She also very occasionally looks uncannily like Donald Duck.
When she lies down now, it is often with a small grunt; at 10 years, she is starting to be an old dog. We often sit together under the nearest apple tree, on the set of steps I moved there from the cabin’s back door when the first addition was put on. Sometimes she will lean all her weight against me, perfectly content, asking for nothing more. Other times, she likes to have her ears tugged and the furrow between her eyes smoothed down. When I do this, she groans deeply with pleasure. She is a creature, after all, and she loves her comforts.
And yes, she’s comforting in return; I lean on her often, too. Even at the lowest of times and even when I am at my very worst, Lily stubbornly, if a little dimwittedly, continues to sit by my side, and for this I thank her forever and ever. I take her with me everywhere I possibly can; if for some reason I must leave her behind, I hate it as much as she does.
Before I got her, I had no idea how to measure out my life, or how to think about what a life spanned. Or, to put it more abruptly, how to think about death. She has given me one context, though I now have others, too. Her life is part of mine; may she live many, many more good years with me.
As I write this, I am sitting with Lily on the sofa. She has clambered onto my lap, and so I use her rather broad back to rest my notebook on. Although PanPan greets her with whoops of joy and whole handfuls of Cheerios, my dog is relieved to have me to herself after bedtime. At the moment, Lily is happily chewing perfectly round pieces from what remains of an old army blanket I gave her many years ago. She spits out each piece expertly, phphtt, phphtt, onto the floor. It reminds me of smoking, which I finally did give up some time ago.
After so many years together, you might well think we could have nothing more to learn from each other. Actually, however, my elderly, small, and stout black Spaniel continues to teach me what matters, over and over, day by day. Love, ordinary love, is its own reward. And so, while I suppose she could very well be any old dog, I know she is in fact my angel, watching over me, all spirit, showing me the way.
Reprinted by permission of author, Eliza Thomas from The Road Home, Algonquin Books © 1997.
Culture: Stories & Lit
On September 1, 2001, I peered into Afghanistan from the very small corridor that touches the Chinese border. Working for a student travel company, this trip along the Chinese portion of the ancient Silk Road had reached its westernmost point. Tomorrow we would retrace our path back eastward to Beijing, to board our plane back to the States on September 11. Life was following its trajectory to extreme and far flung adventure. I had been out of the country on various assignments for nearly two months – time to come home.
The next month would unfold into events far from anyone’s control. On the evening of September 11, I was packing my bags in the Beijing hotel preparing for my flight. With the time difference, we were in horror of what was happening back home on the morning of 9/11. It took another two weeks before I had finally finagled my way back to Boulder after being stranded in Beijing following the terrorist attacks and the chaotic cancelation of international flights. The following week, I was glued to the TV watching anthrax scares after all the employees at my student travel organization were laid off. The director could see the writing on the wall.
Out of all the possible ways to stay sane during those uncertain and CNN-watching times, I chose puppies. I wandered out of my house in the crisp October and into a pet store.
“How many puppies can I have with me in the puppy meeting room at one time?”
“I’ll take a Beagle, a Dalmatian and Golden Retriever, please.”
I sat cross-legged in a sterile 6 X 6 room as they were brought in one by one. They wrestled and tumbled the anxiety right out of me.
Two days later, Roy came home with me from the Humane Society. The dog I named Roy was a three-month-old Bloodhound / Sharpei mix. Yep, try to picture what that looks like. I had no idea what I was doing with my life, but I knew I needed some levity and grounding. I purchased a leash, a food bowl, and a clicker for training at the Boulder Humane Society store. The woman behind the counter said with a knowing smile, “Watch out. When you settle down enough to have a dog, a husband and kids are not far behind. You’re sending a message to the universe - I see it all the time.” It seemed a bit overreaching for the volunteer cashier, but I thought at 31 years old, with some serious curve balls thrown into my career as a travel guide, that a husband and kids might be cool.
“Roy” is a slang word in the Southern Thai dialect (where I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer) that means everything good. Food was roy, clothes were roy, even the weather or a new pickup truck. And my caramel-colored Roy with a wrinkled forehead got me away from the news reel and out of my slump. Like all puppies, he chewed my shoes, needed to be let out to pee two or three times a night and demanded my attention through exercise and socialization – all really good training if you are going to have children one day.
This optimistic, enthusiastic companion bore witness to my next 13+ years: finding the love of my life, three moves, three children and my own wrinkled forehead. He protected me from the fed-ex man and things that go bump in the night, licked the tears of miscarriages away, slept in the bed next to me when my husband traveled or when I had 68 days of pregnancy bed rest. He even kept my feet warm when I was up through the wee hours nursing and soothing my infants and stood guard next to their cribs and infant carriers. Roy is their godfather, after helping me send my message to the universe, my harbinger of life’s gifts.
For the first 3 years we were together, he was my baby. We hiked, I obsessed over his possible ailments on the internet and kept a folder with all his report cards from puppy preschool to adult behavior training. When he was two, Will and I lived in Austin. On the weekends I took him running through the wildness of Barton Creek. He ran three miles for every mile I did - looping ahead and behind, patrolling my perimeter and stopping to hump the smaller dogs he passed. Running, humping, drinking from the fresh creek: good days to be a dog. When we came back to Colorado, we lived on ten acres in Nederland and he chased the huge mule deer and roamed free without a fence. As life progressed, other human babies cornered my attention, we moved to a fenced yard three thousand feet below and I would often look over to him with guilt. I’d love a run too, I thought. How many mornings was I trying to get my three kids to school on time without losing my shit, that I didn’t even turn around to meet his watchful eyes? I’m sorry, buddy.
In two day’s time I have scheduled to have Roy euthanized in our home. I wonder at the tears that lay centimeters below the surface as I go about my day as usual – It’s the logical thing to do. He’s almost 14. He’s lived a great life. He’s suffering. He can’t stand up on his own any more. The drugs have left him a sleepy shell of his former self. Yet, today as I return from the grocery store, his tail thwaps against his dog bed to see me enter. I eat with him in his dog bed. He gets smoked salmon from Whole Foods - all he can eat. I eat my sushi. He sighs his long yogi-ujay breath. I cry.
When someone you love is dying, all the refrigerator magnet platitudes suddenly feel profound. No one else has been such an intimate witness to my life, a bridge through my chapters and cheerleader and non-judgmental friend through my craziness. There’s always some editing to what I show – to even my husband or best friends. Roy has witnessed me trying to squeeze into the too-tight jeans, lip-synching Aretha with a hairbrush, blubbering sad, saying what I wish I’d said to the bathroom mirror and the Madmen evening marathons that I explain away as being really swamped with life. He knows.
My ten-year-old daughter asks me why dogs don’t live as long as we do, why they live seven times faster. Maybe another gift from our pets is to remember that life is brief. We get to witness their silly infancy, their wild and confident teen years and finally the old age that we all might be lucky to face ourselves. All of this happens for them in a decade or so of our own life. Our time here is just a blip – don’t take anything for granted - they remind us.
I hold Roy’s white muzzle in my cupped hands and look into his clouded eyes. I am looking for a message, permission, my further life instructions. I can insert anything I want: “my message to you is _________________. “ A) Yes, I need your help to go. B) Thanks for doing the right thing because I’m hurting. C) You’ve got this, Anni. You don’t need me any more. Or even D) Please remember to wear sunscreen. Instead I just see his goodness, his Royness and maybe that’s all the life instruction I need: remember the goodness.
Culture: Stories & Lit
When the action kicks in real life, being a movie buff pays dividends
My Boxer puppy is allergic to bees.
I found out as I barreled home from work on I-580 East toward the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge one recent afternoon.
Cali—short for “California”— goes to work with me every day. One moment, she was a spry, energetic, sporty Boxer; the next, vomit everywhere, bile and diarrhea all over the passenger seat. I accelerated, crossed two lanes of traffic and pulled onto a wide shoulder just off the exit to the bridge.
Within seconds, my door was open and I was crunching through gravel to the passenger side, driven by adrenalinesoaked instinct: “Dog is sick,” “Have to protect dog,” “Dog comes before you.” I got her out of the car and put her down, watching helplessly as she just kept throwing up thick, yellow bile. She ran toward the bushes and fell on her face, grinding to a halt in dirt and gravel. Out of answers, I picked her up, inadvertently coating my Sevens and Sperry Top-Siders with dog poop. Fashion goes out the window when you’re looking at your best friend dying. I might as well have been wearing a ratty, hand-me-down pair of sweatpants and slippers.
Instinct, that quiet genius that whispers the right answers in your ear in moments of trauma, kicked in again. I called 9-1-1. Who the hell are you supposed to call? There’s no protocol or schematic. Puppy-care books don’t have a section on “What to do when you’re emotionally stranded on the edge of a highway with a dying, breathless puppy.”
One ring, and a female operator picked up.
“9-1-1, how can I help you?”
“Ma’am, my dog is dying!”
Cars piled up at the nearby intersection and pale, worried faces turned toward a man holding a limp puppy and screaming helplessly into his phone.
Turns out, the woman who picked up the call was an angel. She was exactly the right person at exactly the right time—a serendipitous turn of events that allowed her to know exactly what I needed.
“Sir, there’s an emergency vet clinic in San Rafael. I’m putting you through now.”
The phone rang once, and a man picked up. He told me the address. With shaky, uncertain, too-large-to-be-effective-onan- iPhone-keypad fingers, I punched it into the phone’s maps app. Cali’s tongue was hanging out of the side of her mouth.
And this is where the story became all too familiar. The surreal events that were unfolding in front of me were uncannily similar to the scene in Pulp Fiction in which Vincent Vega (John Travolta) races across Los Angeles with his mob boss’s wife overdosing in the passenger seat. Because I’d watched the scene at least 20 times, I knew what I needed to do. When the action kicks in in real life, being a movie buff pays dividends. I went into attack mode. This story would have a happy ending.
I screeched through a red light to get back on the highway, and drove to the vet clinic. Cali was Mia Wallace—eyes rolled back in her head, froth around her mouth and nostrils— and I was Vincent Vega, driving at breakneck speed in his candy-apple red Chevy Malibu (or in my case, an unassuming black Toyota Prius). I weaved through traffic. Horns blared.
In the passenger seat, Cali continued throwing up. Weak and exhausted, she rested her head on my outstretched arm, her bloodshot eyes rolling lazily around in their sockets.
All I could think to do was talk to her.
“Cali, you can’t die. You’re so important to me. I know it’s ridiculous, but you literally are my best friend. You can’t die. The six months you’ve been alive—we’ve spent every moment together.”
The robotic female map narrator told me to take the next exit.
As Cali continued to slip away, I sped off the exit, right into a wall of traffic and nearly into the rear end of another car.
“Cali, Cali, Cali …”
Looking over at her, I thought she had died. Her eyes weren’t registering; they were glazed over and the inner eyelid covered most of her pupil. I stuck my face next to her muzzle and could feel only the faintest whisper of breath.
Back into adrenaline mode. This dog would not die if I had anything to say about it. The Pulp Fiction fanatic in me recalled John Travolta speeding through the empty LA streets—“Don’t f---ing die on me, Mia!”—as I whipped around the corner and through the next two red lights. Traffic began to pull into the intersection, but I could tell that Cali wouldn’t have a whole lot of time left unless I got to the clinic.
The robot woman told me the destination was on my right. In a move similar to Vincent’s when he drove through the front window of his heroin dealer’s house to get Mia the adrenaline shot, I pulled into the parking lot, angling the car haphazardly across three spaces. I left the car running, picked up Cali and ran inside.
A vet tech met me halfway across the lobby and grabbed Cali, taxiing her back to the examination rooms, past a door locked with a key code. The last image I had was Cali hanging from the vet tech’s arms, her too-long-for-her-body legs swinging awkwardly back and forth.
And then I broke down. Adrenaline only goes so far, to the point at which you can finally take a breath and process what has happened. I cried like I haven’t cried in a long time. I’m the last person to throw a self-pity party, but confronting the reality of a dying dog when you’re driving home from work on an otherwise-ordinary Friday shocks you right down to the bones.
That’s where the picture-perfect similarity with the scene from Pulp Fiction came to a close. I spoke with the lead veterinarian, who gave me a rundown of the procedures and measures they’d need to take. Cali had gone into anaphylactic shock from a bee sting, which can be fatal. The cost of the treatment would run between $900 and $1,200. “Here’s my Visa. Keep it.”
I went out to the lobby to get some coffee to shock myself back to life before saying good-bye to Cali. I both thanked and apologized to the people working the front desk. They led me to the examination room to see Cali, and all I could do was fold down to her and sob. I needed comforting from her; isn’t that what dogs usually do? Our roles had been traumatically reversed. She shivered from the fluids they were pumping into her, and looked around in confusion at her surroundings. The vet, the technician and I comforted her. As she lay on the examination table, we went over the diagnosis and logistics.
This experience convinced me of three things:
One, even though I’m conditioned to be angry and resentful about speeding tickets and the CHP, I think it’s true that, for the most part, people working in law enforcement want to help. A hysterical man calls an emergency line about his dying dog, and the operator deftly handles the situation, pointing the man toward the best solution to the terrifying problem. It was the help I needed when I needed it.
Two, veterinarians and people working in animal health are amazing. A grown man bursts into the vet clinic with a wild look in his eyes, breaks down completely and they take over with both precision and grace. Within minutes, the dog is hooked up to the right concoction of medicine and fluids and slowly comes back to life.
Three, when a loved one is dying, all the mundane, ridiculous things we worry about go out the window. All the bills I have to pay and all the obligations I have to fulfill dissipate on the wind when I’m faced with a genuine existential crisis: my best friend is about to leave my life forever. For the first time in a long time, I was humbled, reminded of what really matters in life.
At the end of “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife,” as a kind of favor for saving her life, Mia Wallace tells Vincent the stupid joke she had refused to tell him at the beginning of the sequence: “Three tomatoes are walkin’ down the street. Papa Tomato, Mama Tomato and Baby Tomato. Baby Tomato starts lagging behind, and Papa Tomato gets really angry. Goes back and squishes him and says: ‘Ketchup.’”
Depleted by shock, Vincent only manages a crooked smile and a half-hearted laugh. After Mia turns away, he blows her a good-bye kiss.
Later that evening, I got a call from the vet saying that Cali was going to be all right. Within a half-hour, I was picking her up. And although this joke had a dark and ominous quality, I have to look back at what happened that day and do my best to laugh, even if it’s only an uninspired chuckle.
I know, I could probably ease up on the saccharine. But that day, I gained a better understanding of how precious life is. Since then, I’ve followed Vincent’s lead and blown my loved ones a kiss whenever I leave home—a tribute to Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s wife.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Same breed, different dog, new challenge.
Our first Standard Poodle, Sophie, was everything you assumed when you just read the words “Standard Poodle.” A reincarnated 1920s flapper girl with an apricot coat and long legs, Sophie was always ready for a party, and her prance told you she was well aware of her charms.
Our second Standard Poodle, Buddy, was a black-and-silver puppy-mill rescue with oversized paws splayed from years of standing in metal cages, and all the grace of a goony bird. He had to learn to go on walks, to play with toys, to leap into a car, to accept a treat and feel like he deserved it. After a few weeks of sitting in the yard, somber as a rabbi, staring at the grass, he fell in love with the world. From then on, he woke up happy every morning, practically grinning at the joy of this new freedom and fun.
Two years after we adopted him, he was diagnosed with thoracic lymphoma.
No, I wailed. That is not fair. You don’t spend four years locked in a kennel with broken glass and feces all around you and get only two years to love the world.
With some skilled—and pricey—chemo (we dubbed him Our Little Trip to Greece), we bought him time. I was doing “cancer math,” desperate that he have at least as much joy as he’d had sorrow. He had another wonderful two and a half years, and when the cancer came back, it was merciless but swift.
And then came Louie, our third Standard Poodle.
Raised with cattle dogs, Louie learned their loud bark and rowdy ways. He barged into any situation, barking with such force that he scared away the strangers he was desperate to befriend. When we adopted him (given up because he barked too much … and his person had never really liked the breed anyway, she loved her cattle dogs … it was her partner who bought the Poodle, and a few years later, they broke up …) Louie was already seven and a half. For a year, we waited for him to settle into calmer, older-middle age—just as we were trying to do. But Louie stayed as bouncy as a young kangaroo, excited about everything, without an ounce of prudence.
“For God’s sake, Lou,” I said more than once on each walk. “Settle down, sweetheart.” “No bark.” “Easy.” “Good to be quiet.” “By my side.”
He heard and responded, each time, for approximately three seconds. Then a glint came into his eyes, and he bounded ahead, barking even louder.
Friends were used to my eyes softening whenever they asked about Buddy. “Aw, he’s great,” I’d say. “Sweetest dog on earth. Best dog I’ll ever have.” Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Was I still comparing, and did Louie somehow know it?
Well, no. Lou just likes to bark. Not inside, I might add; he stopped that as soon as he was removed from the pack of cattle dogs. Inside, he trotted after us, cuddled close, did whatever was asked. The problem was just stimulus—anything encountered on a walk; any poor souls, God help them, walking past our front yard; anyone ringing our doorbell.
At the 18-month mark, my husband and I admitted that all the hushing in the world wasn’t going to interrupt the electricity flying along those synapses. We needed a new approach. Instead of trying to prepare my dog, I started preparing the humans.
“If he likes you”—flattery always helps—“he’ll bark really loudly. It means he wants to play.” Which was entirely true, and which instantly erased their wariness. Suddenly, the bark was a prize, and the interactions that resulted were delightful. “Well, I’ll play with you,” people teased, bending close, and Louie bounced with joy and barked again, proving his affection. Instead of me slinking away, mortified, dragging a chastened dog who wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong, I walked away waving good-bye, and Louie bounced along at my side, adding another new friend to his roster.
Before dinner parties, I emailed our guests and explained that our dog would be barky and seem, well, insane, for the first 10 minutes, then would settle down and become a good dog. As a result, nobody jumped or stepped back, which had always prompted our confused but eager dog to bounce even closer and bark even louder. “Ahh,” they said instead, “there goes Loud Louie!”
And in about five minutes, instead of 10, he settled down and became a good dog.
None of this is any excuse for poor training, and yes, it was incumbent upon us to teach him to behave better, and yes, we failed and resorted to a sloppy workaround. All true.
But the lessons it took so long to learn with Louie were the same lessons it had taken me too long to learn in marriage: The creature you love is Other. You don’t own his quirks and habits and opinions. They may change over time; they may not. So you love him thoroughly and completely and stop fretting about what people might think.
And sometimes you do a bit of tactful explaining ahead of time.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The Power of Name-Calling
Our new Golden Retriever puppy is nearly six months old and her learning experiences are our learning experiences. Five times a day, she whimpers to go out; five times a day, we tell her Not now, Maisie. All three of us are learning what to expect from one another concerning patience.
Even though she is our fourth Golden in a long line of beloved dogs, the art of dog training and the understanding of canine behavior have exponentially increased since our last dip into dog parenting. But still, similar to child rearing, hundreds of “experts” offer completely contradictory advice: Have the baby sleep in your bed; never let the baby sleep in your bed. Let the dog sit on your lap; never let the dog sit on your lap.
During the first weeks of Maisie’s transition from being one of 10 littermates to the solo dog in our universe, she was the most adorable, cuddly, sweet-tempered puppy. Then, my husband and I began noticing unpleasant behaviors. Take away a toy or a stick and Maisie’s cute puppy face morphed into what looked like a snarl. I’m talking a display of fangs, which seemed more than mouthy puppy frolics.
Cartoon dogs bury their bones all the time, but when a real dog runs out the door, bone in mouth, and appears to be digging to China and growling if someone gets near, one worries. Our hands and arms were marked with scratches and scabs, and these made us even more cautious in approaching our new pup.
So we phoned an expert. For privacy purposes, I’ll call this person Susan. Susan responded to our SOS immediately, and arrived with an upbeat attitude—You can handle this. We can retrain Maisie—and oodles of information. Our sighs of relief must have been audible when, on her first visit, Susan modeled a cheery dominatrix and coerced Maisie into polite manners. She did this by using force. I don’t mean she used brutality; let’s just say that she out-bullied the bully, showing Maisie who was boss. Susan was not a big woman, but she knew how to square her shoulders and maximize her voice. At one point in the training session, she put a headlock on Maisie and called her “a stubborn little devil.”
We’d never used force with our other dogs and were a bit taken aback, but maybe this dog needed more discipline. Maybe we were the problem. Maybe we needed to buck up, tolerate less, use tough love. We felt badly about ourselves. How did we know what was right? We weren’t the experts, after all.
That evening, we reviewed Susan’s assessment of Maisie’s problems. It read like a profile of a kid destined for prison: hoarding/stealing, aggressiveness, dominance issues. Hoarding! My gawd, we weren’t just dealing with the ups and downs of normal puppydom, we had a delinquent dog on our hands. This was not what we had opted for. Yikes! Would Maisie be a problem dog for the rest of her life? Were we capable of training her? Did we want that responsibility? Our attitude toward Maisie quickly changed from devotion to disappointment and distress, and we considered returning her to her breeder.
Out of desperation, I suggested we try another professional. This time we chose a dog behaviorist, not a dog trainer (the difference is significant and too involved to go into here). Our second expert arrived with a bag full of dog treats and toys; a curious, attentive, non-judgmental manner; and ready praise on her lips. This may sound Disneyish, but Maisie responded immediately to her calm, patient, non-militaristic approach.
From this woman, we learned that very smart dogs like Maisie love to learn. Their puppy energy can be directed toward the playful learning of games and commands for which they earn praise and hot-dog rewards. We learned that the idea of dominant and non-dominant dogs is outdated and that dog behaviorists understand “possession aggression” as “resource guarding.” Dogs with leadership qualities, dogs who might be leaders of their packs in the wild, have an instinct to guard and bury their food because they will be responsible for helping to feed the pack. Bravo for them!
This gets me to my takeaway point: labeling others—children, dogs, ethnicities, races, genders—affects our feelings and emotions about them. What we call them and the spin we give to those names affects how we see and respond. Which sounds better to you: possession aggression or resource guarding? How about this: Your child is bossy. Your child shows leadership ability. Your child is hyperactive. Your child is energetic.
Name-calling can reflect our basest instincts and our uncanny proclivity to project onto others exactly the aspects we dislike in ourselves. Or it can represent our better angels. We can choose. If we apply this insight to the current world stage, doesn’t it seem we have entered a time of malicious name-calling? Maybe we should consider that what we vilify in others might be something we fear in ourselves.
P.S. Maisie has won our hearts. She shows absolutely no signs of unwarranted aggression. She is the dog of our dreams.
Culture: Stories & Lit
It’s a summer day in 1994. Smoke drifts lazily toward the pale blue sky, its woody aroma penetrating the house. Looking out the kitchen window, I watch my husband Bill clear some of the acreage that will be our back yard. Bill drags a tree limb toward the fire. Carrying a small branch in his mouth, a stray dog follows close behind. He places the limb beside the fire, then follows Bill to retrieve more brush.
We had heard about a mutt who helped neighbors clean the creek after a hard rain. It had to be the same dog. The stray had been sleeping on a back porch of a nearby house, and each morning, the woman who lived there gave him a biscuit, his food for the day. Like hoboes of yesteryear, this dog apparently believed in working for his handouts.
I watch the dog leave as Bill enters the house. A few days later, he’s back. Our toddler grandson, playing in the front yard, falls and cries, and the dog goes to him. Our grandson stops crying and puts his arm around the dog. They lean toward each other, and our grandson laughs. Bill says, “We’re going to keep him.”
That’s how the medium-sized, shorthaired dog with one blue eye and one brown eye became a member of our family. Our neighbor said he was the ugliest dog she had ever seen.
Like most homeless dogs, he had ear mites, worms and fleas aplenty; he was also intact. The vet neutered him and made sure he was rid of all parasites. I named him Freddie Flealoader.
He learned quickly that there were things he could not do in the house, but he had a sneaky streak. He slept on the couch when we were gone, then jumped down when he heard our car engine. Our daughter had a hound named Copper. When Freddie escaped, he and Copper could be heard late in the night, yapping and running through the woods. No one’s perfect (but Freddie came close).
As time marched relentlessly forward, Copper died and we all grew older. Our three grandsons became young men.
Sleeping soundly, aging Freddie would move his feet, surely dreaming of running through the woods with Copper. He survived a stroke, and then, during what turned out to be his last year, his vet removed a large malignant growth from his mouth. By that time, he had been with us for 19 years, which made him more than 100 in human terms. Chasing his tail and enjoying life, he was still amazing.
Freddie’s last day came in September 2013. He had a terrible night, and in the early morning, I took him to the yard. His back legs were weak. When he stepped on the wooden walk leading to the deck, he couldn’t navigate the first step. Having been a reasonable fellow all his life, he simply lay down.
I removed the leash, came in the house to tell Bill and then called our daughter. It was seven on a Saturday morning, and I knew I had awakened her, but she and her husband were at our house within 10 minutes.
The vet clinic didn’t open until 9 on Saturdays, so we assembled our lawn chairs around Freddie and drank mugs of coffee and tea. Because he liked nothing better than being near his family, he was content. Wagging his tail, Freddie looked up at me with his cataract-clouded eyes as if to say, I know you can fix it.
Freddie’s incredible age could not be reversed. I couldn’t fix it.
The dreaded time arrived. My daughter wrapped a towel around Freddie, and her husband gently picked him up and placed him in the back of their SUV. Rain was beginning to come down hard, and by the time they reached the vet’s office, it was a torrent. Still, a vet assistant came out to their vehicle and administered the life-ending injection. She was drenched by the time she re-entered the office. That’s dedication.
As I write this, Freddie rests in our pet cemetery in the same yard where he carried branches to the fire with Bill so long ago. The dog hair and the soiled foam bed are gone, but Freddie remains in our recollections. His barks—at strangers, at grasshoppers, at deer— echo through time. His wagging tail, his quick snap when offered food, his devil-dog eyes: they stay with us. Our loved ones, although gone, live on in our memories.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Mother, Mutts and Mercies
Patches joined our family as a puppy when I was two, so she was 13 when I accidentally killed her. She was a mutt and looked like the RCA dog, all white with a brown patch over one eye, but 10 pounds bigger. She had 13 puppies in her first litter, which I took to mean she was Catholic, like our family of nine kids.
Patches licked everyone who came to the house: the Fuller Brush man, the Bourbeau brothers who lived across the street, even my crazy Aunt Madge. Patches smiled like a person, and when she was excited, she pranced, her nails clicking on the kitchen’s linoleum floor like castanets. Otherwise, she was the sole calm presence in the cyclone of our loud, melodramatic family.
However, one thing did upset this otherwise placid dog: explosions, like fireworks and thunder. During thunderstorms, I sometimes crawled with her into her doghouse and held her. Her doghouse smelled like popcorn, like her feet. But holding her never quieted her trembling. After one particularly bad storm, I vowed to find a way to help her overcome this.
I had few friends then, not even in my family. I wanted most to be included by my older brother, Jay, and my cousin, Roy, both jocks, both popular. I was pudgy, smart and solitary. I didn’t know why, but I always irritated Jay, and he and Roy banned me from their fort in the woods. Once, I offered to line the trails to the fort with white birch branches. I thought it would look cool. They agreed, and after I did this, I thought I was in; I tried to join them in the fort, and they pinned me to the ground and stuffed pine needles and dog crap in my mouth.
So Patches was not only my best friend, she was my only friend.
The Scantic, a small river brimming with brown trout and foot-long white suckers, coursed from one end of our western Massachusetts farm town to the other. Every summer for years, Patches and I hiked behind our house in the woods along the Scantic, just the two of us. Sometimes I fished. Other times, we just walked for hours.
Patches never seemed happier than during these outings. Me too. I picked bouquets of wildflowers: daisies, yellow flag irises, flame-red Indian paintbrushes, blue cornflowers and my favorite, Queen Anne’s lace—hundreds of white florets with a few red petals in the center, “a drop of Christ’s blood,” my aunt taught me. Sometimes I’d pick gloriously scented snow-white water lilies, which meant walking into the stinking mud of the swamps. We came home filthy.
I always handed the flowers to my mother, who was loving to all of us, but unsentimental by nature. “Put them in a vase,” she said when I presented my bouquets, and never anything else. I was the sort of boy who picked flowers for his mother, and in our traditional family, boys didn’t do that. Her response made me feel embarrassed, made me aware of my difference, but I still gave her flowers every week.
At that time in my life, given that I was a social misfit, I gorged on books. I’d often turn on a light at four in the morning to read, and this drove Jay, with whom I shared a bedroom, into red-faced rages because I woke him, and because he hated me for being such an egghead.
One night when I was 13 and alone in my bedroom, my mom walked in. From the top of my dresser, she picked up a book I was reading, Howl, by the Beat poet Alan Ginsberg, which had, among many other indecencies, explicit descriptions of sexual acts with his lover, Peter Orlofsky. This was my first introduction to homosexual love as something to be celebrated.
She held the book in the air and looked me in the eye.
“I just want you to know that I know that you’re reading this,” she said, calmly. After her announcement, she set the book down lightly on my dresser and slipped out of the room. At first, I felt dread, then relief and confusion. Why didn’t she forbid me to read the book? I was aware of my attraction to boys, but didn’t think of myself as gay. I knew adult men in our town whom my brothers and I suspected were gay, all of them recluses and outcasts. I would never be one of them— would I?
I now know that she understood I was gay long before I did. In that moment, with a mother’s love, she chose to disregard a sin that her church taught her would deny a person entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The morning I accidentally killed Patches, the two of us found ourselves home alone. This rarely happened. The day evolved perfectly for the plan I’d concocted. A thunderstorm rumbled in the valley to the south, and I had stolen a pack of firecrackers—12 on a single fuse—from my dad’s underwear drawer. These, and my best intentions, created the perfect opportunity to cure her of her fear. Or so I thought.
From inside the house, I listened as the storm approached and the first booms of thunder echoed in our valley. Seconds later, Patches, who had been lying on the grass in the back yard, stood and bolted up the back stairs. If I hadn’t opened the door, she would have dived for cover into her doghouse; instead, she sprinted to the basement and squeezed behind the washing machine, shaking.
I ran downstairs after her and crawled behind the washer to be with her. In this cramped space, where moving an inch meant scratching myself on the rough concrete wall, I held her close to me. She trembled, she didn’t struggle, and she didn’t lick my face as she always did when I held her. Then, as I had rehearsed in my mind a dozen times, I lit a match, then the fuse, and tossed the firecrackers over the washing machine, 10 feet away.
I squeezed Patches against my chest as the firecrackers exploded in a rapid chain: POW-POW-POW-POW. The small room’s concrete floor and walls amplified sound, and the blasts echoed far louder than they would have done outdoors. My eardrums hummed, muting all sound. I looked down at Patches. She still hung in my arms. And she still shuddered.
What went wrong? She knew I loved her. This knowledge and a hug, I was convinced, would prove to her that the firecracker bangs weren’t to be feared. But I had failed her. If anything, her shaking seemed worse.
I stayed with her, huddled behind the washer. Eventually, she stopped trembling. I settled her onto a blanket, and she slept. I tiptoed upstairs to my bedroom, my ears still throbbing.
That afternoon, after my hearing began to return, I heard some of my siblings come home. Within a minute, Matt, my 12-year-old brother, came running up from the basement.
“Patches is walking in circles!” he hollered.
“What?” I yelled. I ran downstairs to the basement. Patches’ head tilted to the left and she zigzagged as she walked. I stood 10 feet in front of her and called her name.
“Here, Patches!” She lurched toward me and then veered to the left, then lurched toward me and veered again to the left. I felt my heart lurch too. Something was terribly wrong.
I held her. Within minutes, my parents came home. They picked her up and put her in the back of our family car, an early ’70s white woody station wagon, and drove her to the vet. I slunk back to my room and waited for them to return. Finally, four hours later, my parents drove into the driveway. All of us ran to the car and stood waiting. When they got out, Patches didn’t jump out after them, and when they shut the car doors, Cory, my six-year-old sister, started bawling. Silently, we flanked them into the kitchen, where they explained that the vet had told them that Patches had had a stroke, and she likely wouldn’t recover, given her age. With the vet, they decided that the best thing to do was to put her to sleep.
Today, now that I’m a vet, I know that it isn’t possible to pin with certainty the cause of a stroke on a particular outside event. But it’s also possible, even likely, that the extreme stress of the basement explosions kicked loose a blood clot to jam a small artery or even speed her heartbeat enough to burst a fragile vessel in her old brain.
Everyone was too stunned to speak. Some walked outside; others, like me, tiptoed to our rooms.
For more than 20 years, up to my graduation from veterinary school, I spoke to no one about that day. After Patches’ death, I built a shrine near a giant oak tree, the only tree that stood in the middle of a mile-long cornfield with a path running through it that we had walked together a hundred times. Under the tree there, I built a cross out of sticks. I left her threadbare leash, a cellophane-wrapped photo of the two of us and flowers.
In the ways that we communicate with our beloved dead pets, I spoke to Patches in the following years. I asked her forgiveness. And, at some inexplicable, fundamental level, I know she said yes. She gave me her forgiveness.
In later years, I felt it most during solitude, strolling the pebbled shores of Lake Champlain near my college in Burlington, Vt., or later along the lotus-covered ponds in Ueno Park, Tokyo, where I lived for three years as a teacher.
Gradually, her forgiveness spread through my world and made new beginnings possible; it was as if a mile-high blanket of oxygen covered the planet, letting me breathe with ease even at the steepest heights.
In Tokyo, I made the decision to apply to veterinary school. I also accepted I was gay. Before I could come to that, I first needed to forgive others for their unkindnesses, my brother’s and cousin’s especially, and myself for believing them. Because at last, I understood that no one needed to be forgiven for being gay.
Coming out as gay was not an act of defiance against church and family. More than anything, it was a celebration of the mercies that had made my adult life possible: those of a knowing mother and a smiling white dog.
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