Home
essays
Culture: Stories & Lit
Bringing Up Blondie
A troubled Greyhound finds her perfect match.

We weren’t going to keep her. That was understood at the outset. By me and by my partner Kathy. By the Greyhound adoption group. By the Greyhound advocacy group that had deemed her a candidate for rehabilitation. Possibly even by Blondie herself. And after we brought her into our home, we wondered if we should have taken her at all.

“Giddy’s Blondie” was one of the last two dogs at Dairyland Greyhound Park, a racetrack in Kenosha, Wisc., when it closed for good at the end of December 2009. Before the track closed, and by the time this exuberant and friendly former racer was three years old, she had been placed in two homes, had been returned to the track’s adoption center twice and had become a dangerously fear-aggressive dog. Probably unadoptable. But the track vet, Dr. Jenifer Barker, thought Blondie could be saved. So did the Greyhound Alliance, a group that facilitates Greyhound adoption through financial support of special-needs dogs, among other things. As a result, Greyhounds Only, Inc., the rescue group from which Kathy and I adopted our three previous retired racers, took Blondie into their program.

The hand of fate seems to have been working feverishly here. For years, Barbara Karant, president of our Greyhound group, had been after us to foster dogs, but Kathy, concerned about upsetting the balance we had with our other dogs, had always been reluctant. So when Barbara asked if we would foster Blondie, I was surprised when Kathy said we’d meet her and maybe, just maybe, foster her. The minute we walked in the door to the facility where Blondie was being held, the sleek dog ran to Kathy and glued herself to my partner’s leg. Kathy joked that Barbara had coached Blondie—who had been keeping her distance from everyone—to do this. We decided to foster. But, just to be clear, we weren’t going to keep her.

A few days into it, we were pretty sure we’d made a huge mistake in agreeing to take her into our home, even temporarily. We’d seen no signs of aggression, but the experience was unsettling nonetheless. Blondie would walk over to one of us and stand very close, clearly wanting attention. The moment we started to pet her, however, she’d yelp as though we’d kicked her, then run to hide in her crate for hours. Thinking she was perhaps in pain, we made what became a series of vet appointments. After countless hours in the offices of an animal behaviorist and a couple of specialty vets in the farthest-flung suburbs of Chicago, it was determined that mostly what she needed was time. And to continue taking Prozac. Steeling ourselves against her yelps, we continued to touch her; she needed to (re)learn that every touch did not mean pain.

As we began gathering bits and pieces of her recent past, we learned that in her first home, there was a teenage son with bipolar affective disorder. While we will never know for sure exactly what happened in that home, it would appear that the son punched, kicked or hit Blondie in the face with a blunt object. After a couple of months, the boy’s mother finally decided that Blondie’s quality of life was not good and returned her to the track’s adoption center. By this time, all the blood vessels in one of her eyes had been broken. Also, though no one was aware of it at the time, her spine had probably been knocked out of alignment, leaving her in near-constant pain.

This last factor became relevant in the second home in which she was placed, where she actually would have been fine with the older single woman who adopted her if not for the actions of her supposedly well-meaning adult son. When mother and son got Blondie to the woman’s home, Blondie hid in her crate. The man tried to force her out, pulling her by the collar. When Blondie bit him, he decided she was dangerous and needed to be returned. He dragged her, still in the metal crate, down a flight of stairs, possibly causing further physical injury. And that was how she came to be left at the track, a hurt, mistrustful creature.

Initially, we were told that had the Greyhound Alliance not interceded on her behalf, she might have been euthanized; one of the adoption groups approached to take her into their program thought she should be put down. Later, when I spoke with Dr. Barker, she said she suspected that Blondie’s trainers liked her well enough that they might have kept her as a “kennel dog”—a dog who no longer raced but continued to live in a crate except for eating and exercise/elimination breaks. She’d have been alive, but not living in any meaningful sense of the word. Once our adoption group took her on, a vet in Chicago, Dr. Kathi Berman, put Blondie on Prozac, and a chiropractor at the practice discovered her spine issues and got those straightened out (no pun intended).

In the meantime, we exercised as much patience as we could muster. I gently pushed Blondie’s limits, trying to show her that I wouldn’t hurt her no matter how much I touched her. Kathy nervously attempted to respect those limits so as not to shatter Blondie’s or our nerves when she had one of her inevitable anxiety attacks. Our little PTSD dog, we called her. Actually, Kathy preferred that name to the one she had, but I reminded her that if we weren’t going to keep her, we shouldn’t change her name. Blondie remained Blondie.

Gradually, Blondie’s panic attacks decreased in length and number—at least around Kathy and me. With friends and family, she still kept a wary distance, especially with Kathy’s dad and brother-in-law. Dr. Barker laughed when she found out that Kathy and I were lesbians: Blondie’s trainers were a lesbian couple, too, she told me. That we are women probably accounted for, in part, Blondie’s burgeoning trust in us —just as her experience with the callous sons in her two previous homes had disposed her to be guarded around men.

There was, for instance, a delusional homeless man who wandered the streets of our neighborhood the year Blondie came into our lives. During this time, there were three dogs in our house: Blondie; Iris (our other Greyhound); and Annie, Kathy’s dad’s Greyhound, who was there temporarily while he was in the process of moving. Walking the dogs, I would often cross paths with the homeless man. Annie loved the guy and couldn’t get enough of his abundant odors. Iris was indifferent to him; if he petted her, she accepted his attention with a bored nonchalance. Blondie— possibly influenced by her earlier experiences— would buck and rear at the end of her leash if he tried to come near her. The fact that he was male can’t have helped either.

But even relatively sane men like our relatives made her uneasy. The behaviorist had said to let Blondie come to them when she was ready, and everyone was careful around her in the beginning, not touching her unless she expressly showed an interest. Even then, she’d often panic and run off. Everybody in our circle knew her history. They were respectful of her limitations, sympathetic to her misfortunes and able to bide their time, waiting for her to come around—literally and figuratively— despite the fact that such standoffishness was not at all characteristic of the love-junkie Greyhounds we’d known up to then.

Sometimes now, when my arms are wrapped around her neck and my face is snuggled against her long snout, I marvel that this is the same dog—this dog who now leans up against friends and family, allows my young nephew to pet her on the head, does tricks for us when we ask, and puts her head in my or Kathy’s lap for many minutes at a time. Yes, as you’ve probably long since guessed, we adopted her.

Over the months when we were trying to get her comfortable in her own fur, we had come to love her. Not only does she have the sweetest face, her willingness to trust again after what she’d been through would have made it hard not to love her. Mostly, though, it was the thought of her having to endure getting used to a whole new family— the cruelty of unsettling her again— that made us decide to keep her.

These days, some three years after she first entered our home, Blondie is, above all, exuberant. Ask her if she wants to go for a walk and she’ll bow, spin and wag her tail ecstatically. She likes to root around in her milk crate for just the right toy, toss it upward, pounce on it and, with her butt in the air and her tail circling like a helicopter rotor blade, manically bite the squeaker. When I let her in from the back yard where she’s been running full tilt, I always say, “Watch your knee caps.” When the door opens, she comes through it like it’s the starting gate at the track: she bolts up the stairs, through the kitchen and dining room, and slides to a stop as she crosses the living room like a canine Kramer from Seinfeld. But she’s not on the track, and she knows it, sidling over to where I’m sitting and positioning her great chest over my thighs so I can hold her.

Our friends in the adoption group joke that we “failed foster.” It’s the proudest I’ve even been about—and the most I’ve ever enjoyed—failing.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Pug in Assisted Living
An elderly Pug needs a little help with the day-to-day.

I recently put my dog, Jack, into assisted living. I knew it was time: he has escalating hygiene needs, he wanders, he is confused and he often puts himself in harm’s way.

The assisted living facility is lovely. It has wide windows, many of them facing south and east, which let in the warm, chunky beams of sunlight in which Jack loves to nap. There is a pleasant, fenced-in green lawn where he can amble about and pee on flowers. The food is delicious: grain-free kibble twice a day and healthy treats like bits of apple, chicken, carrots and peas. The caretakers are generous, loving people.

The best thing about the facility, though, is the cost. Some assisted-living facilities can be price-prohibitive, but the one we put Jack in is downright affordable. That’s because my husband and I are his caretakers and the assisted living facility is our home.

Jack is a Pug. A bug-eyed, brachycephalic, low-riding Pug. He’s always been a happy, bright, if somewhat confused little character. But at the age of 13, he began marking his territory, not only outdoors, but indoors as well—piano legs, sofa legs, chair legs. (If nothing else, the anthropomorphic use of the word “legs” for these furniture extensions tells us how wrong it is to pee on them.)

It’s not that Jack didn’t have the occasional accident when he was younger. It happened. One morning, my husband, rushing out of the house for work, left a note by the coffee machine that read, “Poop by bookcase.”

Of course, that note wasn’t a directive, an order for me to poop by the bookcase. No, no. It was a straightforward statement of fact, letting me know that there was a pile of poop in front of the bookcase.

I looked at that note and thought, This is just perfect, this is so us. Some spouses might leave a note that said, “Have a nice day,” or maybe, “Dinner out later?” But we have our communication down to the nitty-gritty essentials. (I saved that note, in case I ever begin to put on airs. If I start to think, Gosh, we’re cool people, I can always pull out the note, “Poop by bookcase” to bring myself back to reality.)

When Jack began marking his territory inside, it was clear he didn’t know what he was doing. I scolded him in the beginning, but realized it was mean and senseless to scold a senile dog. It was like scolding a baby, or a fish.

I tried to keep up with the messes. Armed with paper towels and a spray bottle of non-toxic cleaner, I sniffed around the house like a Bloodhound until I’d found and wiped up all the puddles. Though I sprayed the rooms with a “floral” air freshener, there remained a misty background odor of “fetid urine swamp.”

I got to the point where I didn’t want people to come to our home, and if they did, they absolutely had to be dog people. Eventually, I wouldn’t even let dog people in. It was that bad. My husband said a couple of times that our house smelled like a barn, which was so very helpful, Honey. Thank you.

In addition to urinating on his indoor trees, Jack is losing some of his hearing and his sight. Sadly, he sometimes lightly bumps into a table leg while he’s heading who-knows-where. He looks humbled and surprised when this happens, shaking his head like a flummoxed cartoon coyote. I can almost see little stars circling his head.

He’s also begun to growl viciously at coats and bags left on sofas and tabletops, then seems to wonder why these fiendish intruders pay him no heed.

Though he’s failing in some areas, I’m not about to take him to the vet to “put him down.” After all, he’s still Jack, my cherished friend. He runs happily to his food dish. He jumps onto sofas and chairs and deftly scales their backs like a little mountain goat. He wags his tail when we pet him or rub his belly.

I had to take some kind of action, though, to change our embarrassing situation. I needed the equivalent of assisted living for him. Since there are no such facilities for dogs (at least, not in our area), I had to create one.

The first thing I did was acquire a crate I could confine him in when we weren’t home. He’d had a crate as a puppy, but that was long gone. When I put him in the new one, he looked at me with his big bug eyes as though I were dunking him in hot oil instead of on top of a cushy pillow. As soon as he discovered he wasn’t going to fry, however, he quickly accommodated himself to it.

I’ve always heard that dogs feel secure in their crates, and sure enough, Jack now voluntarily goes in his to sleep even when we’re home. I assume it’s much less scary in there than it is in an increasingly strange world, where walls and furniture move around, where the scenery is foggy and there are faint, unknown sounds.

So the crate helped with the accidents. I’ve also begun to let Jack outside much more often than I had been. I let him out a lot, in fact. It’s like training a puppy. Many times, he looks at me like he’s got more on the ball than I think, as if he’s saying, “You just let me out five minutes ago, but if this is what floats your boat …”

The third thing I do in our assisted living plan is to shadow him like a private investigator. If he attempts to creep into another room, I follow him, finally speaking loudly, letting him know I’m right above him.

“I’m right here, Jack. Don’t you dare.” When I do this, he startles and looks up at me, impressed, as if I were some omnipotent god. This trailing is really working. I think he thinks I’m always behind him, even when I’m not.

All of this takes a lot of time, but it’s well worth it.

I hope to keep Jack in assisted living as long as possible. I hope he dies here in his sleep one warm evening. I don’t ever want to “take him in,” or “put him down.” I’ve had to do that with other dogs, and it’s one of life’s profound heartbreakers—to look into the eyes of an innocent animal as he or she is injected with a heart-stopping barbiturate.

What I really want is for Jack to live forever. Is that too much to ask? To have a soft, furry, breathing, creature by my side always? To feel the warm weight of this exact individual against my legs on cold winter evenings? To have a sure listener to help me bear my version of the world’s troubles and sadness?

I know it’s too much to ask. Yet, for however long he has left, I’ll keep him happy and safe in assisted living. Dinner at four, crafts at six, lights out at eight! 

Culture: Stories & Lit
Lessons Learned ... And Unlearned
Love and forgiveness. What else is there to know?

My Golden Retriever, Annie, died yesterday. So did my grandmother. God, I’m going to miss that dog.

I’ve been asked to write my grandmother’s eulogy, and as I try, I can’t help but think about these two lives and deaths converging, and the difference between the two paths on which they took me.

Annie and I walked along the nature trail together the morning of her death. I didn’t realize it would be the last time we would walk, although by the quiet knowing that shined in her eyes, I suspect now that she did. She walked along beside me as she had so many times before, without noise, never judging, her stride perfectly in line with mine. She looked at up at me with her deep-brown eyes, and I nodded down in her direction. After all our years together, even though I had never loved her quite like I should, I had begun to understand what her friendship had done. She had been here to walk me.

I took off her leash and let her run ahead, knowing she wouldn’t go far. Time had changed her puppy bounding into a slow, unsteady, gait. The sunshine sparkled through the tree leaves, and she looked like a golden friend.

In my head, I constructed the eulogy for my grandmother as Annie lumbered down the trail, her face white with age.

Dear ladies and gentleman, thank you for coming. There was never a time that I was with my grandmother that I didn’t feel small.

Wait, that won’t work. Hang on.

“Annie, what do you think?” I patted her as I caught up to her.

Friends and family. Thank you for coming. There was never a time when I was with my grandmother that I wasn’t intimidated and afraid. I mean, people need to live in a land where they can spill!

No, that was rude. A eulogy needs to be kind, to focus on the best in a person.

For all you people who actually bought the lies, behind closed doors, with her family, where it really, really mattered, she was mean as a snake. Cold cuts served in the lobby. Peace out.

Okay. Clearly, it needed work.

“Annie!” I called out. She stopped and looked up at me as though wondering who I might be.

“Hey, girl, are you having a senior moment? You know me, silly.” I patted her on the head and leashed her, and we turned the same corner down the same path that we had taken a thousand times before.

I was raised by two of the most neurotic women who ever walked the face of this planet. I’m serious. Outside of Queen Elizabeth, like, you have never met bigger divas. My grandmother was the wife of a strict minister, but he made millions in real estate. We lived in a home where dinner was an “event,” with the finest crystal and best china; a home with white, velvet couches and plush linens and satin sheets. We spent our time learning Latin and practicing the piano and were taught that dogs would bite us, that we were “allergic” to them, that they were filthy, full of germs, that they would ruin our homes, our investments. Simply put, that only trashy, stupid and feeble-minded folks believed that dogs and cats “had feelings” or that they “could love,” or even felt the need to have them around at all. I once saw my mother kick a stray dog and say, “It’s not like it has feelings, darling.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I mean, who did she think she was? Gritting her teeth at us that way and hiring nannies to spend time with us? Would it have killed her to hug her grandchildren?

When I grew up and had my own children, I was determined to break that cycle of neuroticism, or to at least see what all the fuss was about. So determined was I that I also became a nurse. I mean, what could be more real and raw than that? I was determined to get my hands dirty in any way possible, because all the preaching and baptisms and baths just hadn’t made my soul feel clean. What would, I wondered?

I took my kids to the shelter and we waited as the workers brought out Annie. She was skinny, her ear had been cut, and her fur was dull. They said she had just had puppies, but the puppies had not been found; they thought maybe they had been thrown over a bridge. I told my kids to sit on the ground, because someone had said you can tell a dominant dog right away like that. I held my breath, and my heart pounded hard as I waited to see what this monster would do. She gently walked up to my four-year-old son, sat in front of him and bowed her head. She raised her thin paw for him to shake, so he did. Then he looked up at me and said, “This one?” because children know beauty when they see it.

I said, “You know what? I bet we could find a sweeter dog than this.”

My children looked at me quizzically. “We can, Mommy?”

And I winked and said, “But I think we’d spend a long time looking. Let’s get her!” They jumped up and down, hysterically happy, and well, 11 years later, here Annie and I were, on another walk together.

As I look back on the years, here are the things I learned from my grandmother and from Annie:

From my grandmother, I learned that environments were supposed to be sterile, that germs and smudges and dirt would make me sick. But that was only because she was trying her best to keep me safe.

From Annie, I learned that into every life, a little fluff must fall. Sweeping up after a Golden Retriever taught me that not only is life not perfect, but neither am I, and neither is anyone else. And we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be. A little dirt is good for the environment and leaves room for spontaneity.

From my grandmother, I learned that I was small and incapable and that authority should be feared. But that was only because she was doing her best to teach me what she understood to be manners.

From Annie, I learned that I was just as I should be, not too big and not too small. Whether I was at my most beautiful in a ball gown, running a marathon in perfect health, or out on my back porch crying and enjoying the occasional cigarette, Annie didn’t care. She didn’t judge or yell at me. She just sat beside me. Like a friend. Like a best friend.

From my grandmother, I learned there was one truth, and that if I questioned it, there would be no fellowship with God. But that was only because she was doing her best to guide me to be strong in my beliefs and to stand for something.

From Annie, I learned that God isn’t to be feared, and that He gives good gifts. Dogs are certainly one of them. And maybe, just maybe, the true mysteries of the universe are pretty darn simple, no preaching needed at all, because Annie seemed to get it. Love and forgiveness. What else is there to know?

From my grandmother, I learned to watch the clock, and that time was a measure of life. But that was only because she was doing her best to make me a lady.

From Annie, I learned that time passes not only in minutes, but in years, in scenes, and that we look back on them and we wonder, how did we treat one another? Did we love enough? Did we forgive? Did we accept flaws in ourselves and others? Did we allow love to conquer all? Or did it have to be perfect?

Annie trained me. Over 11 years, she trained me. She met me right where I was: not ready to love her like I should, because I just didn’t know how, no one had taught me, but ready to love her as best that I could, and it was enough for her. I did my best and I fell short, but it was enough for her, because she looked at my heart.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. We are here today to honor a beautiful, whole woman who loved and had faith. She was a once-in-an-eternity soul who was not perfect, but she was perfect for me. My grandmother. Will you join me as we fondly remember her together, this perfect hostess, this amazing teacher and friend?

When I am finished crying … after Annie and my strict grandmother have both been gone awhile … I’m going to get another dog, because I still have areas of my character that need to be refined. I still have training that can only continue be undone by a little fur on the floor and a few tipped-over water bowls. Geez, I hope there’s time.

Thank you, God, for dogs. And thank you for my grandmother. 

Culture: Stories & Lit
George, The Dog Who Saved My Life

By the time George had come into my life, I had more than three hundred convictions to my name and had been in prison over thirty times.

You might be thinking that I couldn’t have been much of a thief to get caught so many times over the years, but the truth is I found it so hard to cope with life on the outside that I had started to effectively check myself in to prison for the winter. It got to the point where I wouldn’t even bother to cover my tracks while I was out burgling. I’d deliberately not wear gloves so I’d leave fingerprints, or I wouldn’t clean up after myself if I grazed my arm and started bleeding.

I knew what I was letting myself in for in jail, but at least inside I didn’t have to worry about having a roof over my head and feeding myself, which was sometimes too difficult to deal with on the streets.

It’s exhausting being homeless, shifting between day centres and hostels or missions, or sleeping in cars and bin sheds as I had to do after losing my flat in President House. Sometimes I was so desperate I felt like chucking a brick through a police station window and holding out my hands for the cuffs, just so I could get a bed for the night.

I was stuck in one such cycle the day George came into my life. He turned up after I’d been out of prison for about seven or eight months, and the cold winter of 2009 was really setting in. Under normal circumstances, I’d have been thinking about getting sloppy on the next job, so as to get myself a short stay inside that would tide me over until the weather warmed up.

As it was, George had his feet well and truly under the table by the time I got round to thinking about that, and that threw a bloody big spanner in the works. If I went to prison, I would lose George. It was as simple as that. We’d come too far for me to even consider that an option. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, I had someone other than myself to care for, and it had filled my life with meaning.

Over the years, I had met a few girls and I’d had a few relationships here and there, but nothing that had lasted more than a couple of months at most. I’d seen how my brothers and sister were with their children and how much love they had for them; I was beginning to feel that way about George.

My feelings for him became crystal clear to me one day when we were sitting outside Fenchurch Street station and a well-to-do woman came up to us and started raving about George.

‘What a lovely dog!’ she said, scratching him on his head and generally making a big fuss of him. ‘He’s absolutely gorgeous! I’ve never see such a cute Staffie. I don’t suppose you would let me buy him off you?’

I was completely stunned and totally speechless. Who was she to ask that?

‘He’s absolutely fantastic,’ she continued. ‘I’d give you a really good price …’ She started to say she could pay £2,000 cash, but I stopped her in her tracks.

‘Look, no offence, miss, but have you got kids?’ I asked her.

‘Yes, but I know Staffies and I’m sure he’s good around children …’

‘No, forget that. What I’m saying is, how would you feel if I asked you if I could buy one of your kids?’

She looked at me in confusion.

‘You see the thing is, George is like my son. I love him like he’s my own flesh and blood. I wouldn’t sell him for two grand. I wouldn’t even sell him for a hundred grand. He’s too important to me.’

She was very gracious about having her offer turned down flat. There were no hard feelings and even George had a twinkle in his eye when the lady walked away.

Anyhow, that conversation had cemented what I already knew to be true; I was sticking with George come hell or high water. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, not in those early months. George meant a hell of a lot more to me than anything else in the world. I loved him, and losing him was unthinkable.

When we sat together on the floor of my bedsit, I was remembering that woman and the crazy amount of money she’d offered for George. Two thousand pounds would have been mighty nice right then.

‘I should have sold you to that lady, George. Could have got myself a nice gold watch for that.’

George let out a sigh, lay down and put his head between his front paws. He looked quite sad, to tell the truth, and I felt bad.

‘Oi, listen, I was only joking. It ain’t your fault,’ I said. His ears pricked up.

‘Well I suppose it is, you daft git,’ I laughed, ‘but that’s a good thing, mate. Don’t you worry.’

I thought back over the time I’d had George. I had barely let him out of my sight since the day I took him on. I wouldn’t even leave him tied up outside Tesco if I needed a tin of dog food; I’d always ask a mate I trusted to keep an eye on him for a minute, and I’d dash in as quickly as I could.

To begin with I was terrified of the mad Scot showing up, and then after that lady tried to buy him, I was scared stiff of him being stolen.

Leaving George alone to go out thieving was completely out of the question. My gammy leg already made that difficult, because I wasn’t as nimble as I used to be. What if I got caught and was put in the cells overnight? Who would feed the dog and take him out? I knew full well I would lose George for good if I got locked up, because there was nobody I knew who would be able to look after him for me for any length of time.

‘That ain’t happening,’ I said out loud, thinking about being banged up again. ‘I need to get a job.’

George was sitting up attentively now and had one of those looks on his face that said ‘Silly bastard, how you gonna do that?’ but I wanted him to know what was on my mind. I suppose I was a silly bastard to think he might have understood, but he seemed to be listening to me.

I know I was also a very stupid bastard for being nearly forty and having no job prospects whatsoever. Who would take me on with a criminal record as long as mine? It read like a telephone directory. And, even if some poor bugger was mad enough to take a chance on me, how would I manage to hold down a job with George by my side? It was beyond me.

There was only one thing for it. I didn’t want to have to rely on begging forever, but I knew I had to carry on doing it in the short term at least, or the pair of us would starve. It was that simple.

‘Come on, George,’ I said. ‘Let’s go and take a little stroll down Shoreditch High Street.’

From George the Dog, John the Artist by John Dolan. Copyright © 2014 by John Dolan. Published in 2015 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers Inc. www.overlookpress.com. All rights reserved.

Culture: Stories & Lit
The Gift of a Great Dog
Recognizing the “one” but taking on a new dog.

If Rex could have talked, we would have finished each other’s sentences. We got another dog right away.

That wasn’t the plan. But back in March, less than two weeks after Rex died and when I still had faint bruises from digging my fingers into my forehead amid uncontrollable sobs, I signed us up to “foster” a Saint Bernard mix that had been rescued from a crack den.

It was a classic rebound move, but the unbearable silence of the dogless house was too much to take. You don’t realize how much a dog’s presence defines the contours of your home until, in its absence, the walls seem to relocate themselves. You don’t realize how many of your unconscious gestures—a glance into a certain backyard corner, a moment of extra care on the stair landing—are calibrated to your dog’s internal GPS.

And then one day there is no dog in the yard or on the stair landing. The night is no longer punctuated by the clicking of his nails on the floor, the body jerks and muted little barks of his dream life. And because this is intolerable, you get another dog.

There are an estimated 164 million pet dogs and cats in the United States. That means many hundreds of thousands of them die every year, leaving their owners (or human companions, if you prefer) awash in grief. Just about every major city in America offers pet bereavement groups, and if you just type something like “losing dog worse than losing dad” into a search engine, you’ll see how the pain of losing a pet can sometimes exceed that of losing a friend or family member. Experts say it’s nothing to be ashamed of because animals provide constant companionship and unconditional love in a way that no person ever could or should.

With that in mind, I’ve tried to tell myself that getting another dog so soon after Rex’s death isn’t the same as splitting up with someone, then hitting an IKEA kitchen sale with the next warm body you meet. It’s more like seeking oxygen because suddenly your air supply has been taken away.

I’d tell you about the new dog, but so far there’s not a whole lot to say. She was 83 pounds when we got her and she’s 93 pounds now, but she lives in a shadow so long she might as well be a tiny a flower we picked and brought inside in an attempt to brighten up the room. That shadow is cast by 13 years with Rex, who was my baby, my companion, my muse, my partner.

Don’t think for a second I don’t know how sad that sounds. There’s a particular kind of single woman whose relationship with her dog has a level of intensity and affection that may be both the cause and the result of her singleness. For a long time I was that woman.

Rex lived with me in 12 different houses and apartments in two different states. He usually slept outside or on the cool tile floor, but in the winter he shared my bed, colonizing not just the foot of it but sometimes the space next to me, where he’d lay his head on the pillow. In my life so far, I have never felt more in tune with another living thing. If Rex could have talked, we’d have finished each other’s sentences.

Then I met my husband, and he loved Rex too. And though I stopped being that particular kind of single woman, we became a particular kind of couple: the kind for whom their dog is their child, the kind that talks about their dog in such a way that people who have actual children make fun of them in the car on the way home. But we didn’t care. Rex was our Zen master, our couple’s-therapy dog. Even when we weren’t sure how we felt about each other, there was never any doubt that we were going to love him down to the nub.

They say if you’re lucky you’ll get one really great dog in your life. Other dogs may do their jobs in their own unique and perfectly wonderful ways, but there will always be that dog that no dog will replace, the dog that will make you cry even when it’s been gone for more years than it could ever have lived. I have now had that dog. That is at once the most beautiful and most awful thought in the world.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Training Maxine, Rescue Dog
Learning that life can be good

She and I are alone. When I say the B-word, she rushes to my side and goes into a sit, the first thing she learned, and so far the only one: sit comes before treat the way head comes before tail. It’s not open for discussion.

“Bagel! Maxine! Bagel!”

She’s so wiggly, she can barely hold her bum to the floor. The eyes that were sad and dull in her adoption photo are now bright. Her long tail goes back and forth at the rate of maybe a hundred swishes per second. Come to think of it, since she came to live with us a month ago, she’s also learned something else: incredibly, there is such a thing in life as feeling alive.

Maybe she remembers that a frozen blueberry bagel was what I gave her to chew on after I brought her home for the first time, after she had torn apart every toy in her crate— toys that were supposed to be (ha-ha) indestructible. Last week, she got hold of her adopted brother’s yellow rubber duck, which now has no head. Yesterday, she attacked the only toy her other new brother loves, a small purple bear he’s had for seven years, since his puppy days. She pulled it from under his chin while he was sleeping. Now, it looks like someone put it through a miniature leaf-shredder, after pulling out the stuffing.

She’s close to a year old: a chocolate Lab/Wirehaired Terrier mix, bearded, scruffy, skinny, long-legged. On our walks, strangers who stop to ask about her haven’t always been kind. It’s been pointed out to me that she looks like an Irish Wolfhound crossed with a monkey, a Labradoodle with ancestors who were porcupines, a Schnauzer crossed with a Whippet. I’m never bothered by these observations. I happen to know my new girl dog is one of the most beautiful creatures on earth.

The woman who rescued and fostered her told me during a phone conversation that she was guessing Maxine would turn out to be Retriever-ish, but maybe she said that to make me feel I’d have some experience to draw from (my other two dogs are Retrievers). I thought it would be nice to live with a dog who has two different but equal sides, like kids on a seesaw who weigh the same. That was a fantasy. I know a lot about Terriers now. I know the Terrier part of any dog has no interest in being equal. Terriers feel they should be allowed to do whatever they want, all the time, and if you don’t agree with that, something must be wrong with you.

“Maxine, this is a lesson! School time! School and bagel!” I home-school my dogs, making things up as we go along in a trial-and-error sort of way. I’m a dog-training amateur, and sometimes, their behavior drives me crazy, especially when other people are around. Anyone who comes to my home, stranger to the dogs or not, has to hurry to a chair (as in, “sit down and hang on!”) because the dogs get carried away greeting and checking out humans and vying for attention. If I shut them in another part of the house when someone’s visiting, I break their hearts. They act like eager students who do not understand why their teacher won’t give them a lesson in something they’re dying to learn.

I don’t have dog-education credentials, but I taught creative writing to humans for a long time. Also, I’m a mom. I love teaching and it’s always come naturally to me, and I do think my students and my son fared okay with me pushing them to try things they never thought they could do, and then pushing them a little harder to do those things as well as they possibly could. But they’d probably, every one of them, welcome any chance to say I was tough, or I was demanding, or I was “Terrier-like.”

“Yes! It’s blueberry!”

Maxine watches me take the bagel out of the freezer and drop it into an empty cereal box. Her tail stops moving, like an excited voice going suddenly silent. She’s confused. Why don’t I hand her this favorite thing? Is something wrong? Did I stop loving her after only one month, when I had sworn to love her forever, when love was the first word I taught her, even before sit and bagel? I set the cereal box upright on the floor. She is baffled. She takes a step toward it, then two steps back, tail drooping, head low.

When I do this with Andy, my giant, high-strung Golden, he gets whatever big carton I have. It takes him just minutes to jump the box and jaw it, paw it, crush it and rip it. When he finishes the treat, he commences to see how much cardboard he can eat before I take it away. Skip, my undersized Nova Scotia Duck Toller, gets a shoe or boot box, the lid secured with duct tape to thwart him. He is the MIT student of my household. He takes forever to paw-push and nose-nudge the box around, tipping it, studying it, until he figures out exactly where the treat is. When he creates an opening, it’s the right size for him to reach in with his snoot or a paw, and there you go. It would never occur to either of them not to liberate the treat.

Maxine went into a high-kill shelter when she was a tiny pup. There is no information about her past except that her mother is a chocolate Lab owned by a “backyard breeder.” Somehow, the Lab had mated with an anonymous bearded Terrier—definitely not one she was supposed to step out with.

The woman who saved Maxine is connected with the adoption group I had applied to. This is how she described the rescue to me: “I ran to the shelter when I found out they put her name on their euthanasia schedule for that day. Her time had run out and no one wanted her. I don’t suppose anyone going there to adopt had looked at her twice, her being so unusual. She’s the only one of that litter—they were all surrendered— who didn’t get homed. I opened her cage and grabbed her and tucked her under my arm. I wish you could’ve seen how she looked at me. She was real quiet, but she knew what was what. They always know.”

Maxine looks at the box. She lies down. Her eyes are the eyes of one who feels defeated about trying something before the trying has even begun. In her head, she is still in her cage. Everything she wants is outside it.

They say that dogs don’t cry like humans. But anyone who has lived with a dog knows they do. They just don’t get wet about it.

I whisper to her, “Don’t cry. It’s okay.”

I’ve been afraid that all those months in a cage damaged her in ways that cannot be undone. She has space issues; she’s always banging into things. Her vision checks out perfectly, but she has trouble seeing anything that isn’t straight ahead and up close. If she hears a noise behind her, she still doesn’t know she can learn what it is by simply tuning around. When you throw her a tennis ball, she leaps to catch it, but by the time she jumps, the ball is no longer in the air; then she freaks out a little, not knowing how to look for it. And she was terribly ill when she arrived: parasites, malnutrition, poor digestion. Then came a scary infection that put her into emergency care and hospitalization. This is a dog who, in her first year of life, has twice been at the brink of death.

What am I doing? Why am I forcing her to confront a task she clearly can’t handle? Why didn’t I know right away that expecting her to try for the bagel is the same as asking her to grow wings and fly around the room like a bird?

For a second, I comfort myself with the thought that maybe I rushed this. It’s only been a month. Surely, when I try again at some point in the future, all will be well, and she’ll make a tiny effort to at least put one paw on her box. But the signs aren’t good.

The top flaps of the cereal box are open and folded back. In the moment before I reach for the box to tip it and let the bagel fall out so she can at least retrieve it, I smile at her and try to tell her with a look that what I’m about to do is completely right, and what I’d meant to do all along. I didn’t really want her to do to the box what she had done to her crate toys, Andy’s bear, Skip’s rubber duck and all the other things she’s destroyed. It’s fine that she doesn’t do what Terriers have done historically to small animals, such as rats. I want her to be happy and safe and okay with herself exactly as she is. I want her to …

There’s no such thing as ES P, right? There’s no such thing as thoughts in a human mind transporting, somehow, to the mind of a dog, right?

This happened. I was thinking something along the lines of Get this box and kill it, Maxine. I was thinking, I want …

She jumps up from what was nearly a stupor so fast that I almost don’t see it. She pounces. She sinks her teeth into the side of the box, then tips her head and hoists it, and shakes it and shakes it and shakes it. Her head is going side to side almost as fast as her tail. She doesn’t know the bagel flew out until she takes a break from the shaking to catch her breath.

She spots where the bagel landed. Oh! How did that happen?

She is awestruck. She grabs it and jumps to the couch, which is covered with an old cotton blanket. As soon as she’s up there, she licks the bagel like it needs to be cleaned. I see the way she settles into the blanket. Her cage had a floor of cement.

I go to the treat container to get a biscuit. Andy and Skip are out in the dog pen and they’ll soon be inside. I know what will happen if they smell blueberry bagel and not a ordinary treat on their sister’s breath. I’ll never hear the end of it, but they’re both on a diet.

I send Maxine this thought: no way am I leaving the box lid open the next time, no way. She doesn’t tune in. She’s too busy chewing.

Crumbs are stuck in her beard. She’s holding the bagel between her slim, strong paws. She seems too fixated to know she’s about to get a biscuit, too, but of course she knows. Her tail starts thumping the couch, up, down, drumstick-like, sounding out a beat I want to listen to forever. A heartbeat.

Culture: Stories & Lit
SoCal Coyote Encounter
A surprising encounter with her dog’s canid cousins.

When you grow up as a child of the dry, in Southern California where water has always been as valuable as melted silver in the canals and irrigation ditches called zanjas way back in the early 1800s, the river calls you. The Santa Ana River calls me every day. I can’t ride my bike or walk beside it every day, but I do as often as I can, and my dog Fantasia loves the wildness of the river as if she were born to hunt there. She usually hunts tennis balls. But when we walk down the Tequesquite Arroyo just past the end of my street, and she realizes where we’re going, her head lifts and she tries to run at the end of the leash until my shoulder threatens to pop out of place. It’s the smell of willows, cottonwoods, rabbits and squirrels.

Down past the Orange County line, the river is encased in concrete and riprap, like the Los Angeles River and so many others. But here, the Santa Ana is still wild, though diminished by upstream dams and water diversion projects, and though the water runs bank-to-bank only after the most ferocious winter rains, there is always a wide band of shallow water moving eternally toward Corona and all the way down to Newport, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean.

Sometimes I worry about my lifelong obsession with place, with the small and large histories and memories particular to this part of California, even this river. But when Queen Elizabeth celebrated her 60 years on the throne, a procession of boats and barges accompanied her down the Thames, and I cheered for her river. I listened to Handel’s “Water Music,” composed for King George’s journey on a barge up the River Thames in 1717.

And Fantasia, a Flat-Coated Retriever, apparently a purebred dog picked up in Moreno Valley when she was only a year old before we adopted her seven years ago from the Riverside Humane Society, believes she is meant to be hunting ducks and fish in this river, as she was bred to do in some distant past—in Virginia, maybe, or in England.

But a few weeks ago, the coyotes almost got us, and the river taught me that it is wild still, wilder than we might like to believe. Last year’s winter storms uprooted willows and tangled the wild grapevines into snarls along the cottonwoods and oaks. This spring, the arrowroot has grown back full and lush, the straight branches Native Americans used for arrows when they lived along the river. Fantasia strained at the leash, wanting to leave the asphalt bike path along the edge of the riverbed and plunge into the trail she remembered led to the water.

I wanted to see the river, too. We wound through the powdery white sand through the cottonwoods, past the tree where the hanger has been dangling from a branch for a year as a reminder of floods, through the yellow blooms of monkey flower and the tiniest purple lupines just sprung from the glittery sand. We stood beside the water, watching a young egret watch us, and then he lifted abruptly into the air. I spoke on the phone to Doug, who remembered taking photos of us at this very spot, and then I heard the low confident laugh of a coyote.

To the left of me. West. Behind a bush. Then his compatriot answered, a different laugh, a coded chuckle. To the right of me. East. And one more checked in, burble of Yeah, I’m right here. A little southeast. One more—high-pitched, three yips, just farther in the circle.

They circle around my dog and me. It was not close to sunset. It was early. I hung up and breathed hard. I could smell them. Fantasia could smell them. But she thought they smelled, and sounded, incredibly attractive. Rather than tremble or pull me away, she sat down. Primly. Interested.

I said, “Fantasia, those are not sexy dogs. They are wild.” I thought, Do they want to kill us, or just toy with us?

I started to run away from the river, dragging Fantasia at first since she was still intrigued, straight back down the path, and they called to each other on all sides of us, as if we were passing a gauntlet of eyes. The sky was still very light, it wasn’t even 7 pm, and they were playing with us. The laughter and chorus of that many coyotes is one of the scariest things I’ve ever heard. I hear it all the time, from my bedroom window at midnight, and these are the same singers, but they sound much different moving alongside in the deadly quiet of the riverbed.

We ran until I was covered with sweat, and Fantasia had realized we weren’t hunting, but being hunted, and when we got to the asphalt path, the sounds of their game faded back. We had not seen them. I kept running on the asphalt until two young guys on bikes came up behind us and said, “You okay?”

“Coyotes,” I gasped, and they said they’d heard them, too. They walked with us until we reached the trailhead, and then kept riding. Fantasia’s tongue hung out pink and long, her sides heaved, and she looked happier than I’ve ever seen her. I leaned against the last fencepost of the bike trail and looked back at the trees swaying in the breeze, the white fluff drifting off the cottonwoods, and heard a few more chuckles of coyote song in the distance where they might have found someone else to play, to remind them of the power of moving water that belongs to no one.

This piece was adapted from the original that appeared as a KCET SoCal Focus commentary, “Notes of a Native Daughter.”

Culture: Stories & Lit
How I Found My Dog Carson
A stray meets her match.

As a computer geek, all of my jobs start the same way: with a crazed phone call from someone having an emotional meltdown. Once I reassure the individual that I can fix their technical emergencies, I’m paid to arrive on time and save the day. It’s a life. But even though my jobs all begin the same way, one job—in particular—ended in a most unusual fashion.

On this rainy evening, I found myself working at Carson City Hall, about twenty miles south of Los Angeles. Kneedeep in wires, I realized that I’d forgotten to bring in some tools I needed. As I headed out to my car through the rain, I walked past an empty bus stop and was surprised to see a dog taking shelter from the downpour there. She was a black Pit Bull with cropped ears, and it was clear that she’d recently had a litter of puppies. She sat lopsided on her haunches just in front of the fold-down seats, so she looked like she was waiting for the bus to arrive. In a private but brilliant act of comedy, I said out loud, “Hey, are you waiting for the #75 local?” The dog’s response was even more brilliant. She gave me a look—one of those “Please help me” looks; one of those, “You’re the only chance I have” looks; one of those, “How low are you going to feel if you turn your back on me and walk away?” looks.

For the record: I’ve adopted three cats, rescued and placed three others and—as a direct result of the feline invasion— also rushed various half-dead birds and rodents to the veterinarian for resuscitation. So I’m a well-credentialed pushover, thank you very much. But, with three cats at home, I wasn’t rescuing, fostering or adopting this dog. Literally: no chance. I sensibly turned around, walked off into the rain toward my car and left the dog at the bus stop. Only, she followed. As I walked through several rows of cars, she trailed me, sheepishly, her body unusually low to the ground, as if she didn’t fully believe that following me was in her best interests. Our eyes met as I opened my trunk to grab my tool bag, but she immediately looked away. I was stunned. Here was the most feared dog in America—a black Pit Bull with cropped ears— willingly giving up all her power in the hope that survival might be the reward.

Although I wasn’t going to take her home with me, surely there was something I could do to help. And there in my trunk—right in front of me—was the case of canned food I’d just purchased for my cats earlier that day. I paused, chuckled and then made the Decision: I opened a can of the cat food, dumped it on the pavement and watched, shocked, as the dog devoured it, belched and looked back at me for more. Total elapsed time: three seconds. “Apparently, you’re hungry,” I said while giving her another can, which she also devoured. This, of course, was my first dilemma: one doesn’t give a homeless dog a five-star meal and then expect her to say, “Thank you,” leave a tip and head back to the bus stop. I shrugged, slammed the trunk closed and walked through the rain into City Hall. She, of course, tried to follow me right inside. The staff didn’t allow that.

So instead, she waited under a canopy in plain sight through the front windows, a constant reminder. She was very polite about it, of course: she didn’t stare through the windows with sad, hopeful eyes like a tortured soul silently begging me for more cans of meat. She just curled up in a ball and tried to sleep.

I attempted to convince my client that he should adopt the dog. “Isn’t she so nice?” I said. “Look how beautiful she is! Wouldn’t she make a great pet?” He said no. Repeatedly. However: after forty-five minutes, I actually guilted the poor SOB into calling his mother to ask her if she might take the dog. The entire conversation lasted maybe fifteen seconds, was entirely in Spanish and went from “Hola, Mama,” to allout screaming almost instantaneously. My client slammed down the phone, wincing. There was a pause. “I should have just taken the dog over to her instead,” he said, looking down and shuffling his feet.

Two hours later, I’d saved the day once again. Computers all now working, my client and I left City Hall together. The Pit Bull immediately perked up and ran to me. After two hours. That dog waited out in the cold and rain for me for two hours. I don’t wait two hours for anything, especially outside in the drizzle. I was at a loss for words. My client was not.

“Hey, good luck with your new dog. You were right—she’s a real beauty!” he said, walking off to his car.

“She sure is,” I said, walking off toward mine. And the dog followed. I now faced my second dilemma: leave the dog when she clearly needed help or take her home with me and risk freaking out my cats. In response, I did something I’d never done before: I asked God—out loud—what to do.

“Please tell me,” I pleaded, looking into the dog’s eyes. “What am I supposed to do here? Do I take this dog or do I leave her?” The dog sat and looked at me with her head cocked. I waited for my answer. Five seconds. Fifteen. Sixty. The clouds didn’t part; there was no booming, echoing voice; and the rain didn’t stop dramatically. Instead, I opened the passenger door and announced to the dog, “Okay, here it is: if you get in, you’re going with me tonight. If you don’t get in, you’re going to stay here.”

The dog sat there, unwilling to get in the car. I had my answer.

I picked her up, put her in the front seat and drove off. Thus started a beautiful relationship.

Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Hiking the Sierra
A dog with a job makes the perfect hiking partner

Trying to hitch a ride from Kennedy Meadows to the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Sonora Pass in the eastern Sierra, we didn’t see our handsome dog Ely as liability. Who wouldn’t want to pick up a nice couple—freshly showered, with laundered clothes—and their fuzzy, backpack-sporting dog?

Every car that passed, that’s who. Cars sped by, but still, no one stopped.

Finally, a pick-up truck slowed down. Three happy dogs vied for window space. The driver told us to hop in. “Good looking dog,” he said, pointing to Ely.

My husband Tom got in the back with Ely, and I sat up front with the driver and his dogs. It turned out that the driver had picked us up because he liked the look of our dog. So Ely really had been an asset, not just hiking the trails, but also, hitchhiking the highway.

At the Sonora Pass parking lot, I walked to the back of the truck to grab my pack and we started our 80-mile hike home to Tahoe. We continued up the pass, past the snow-patched, volcanic Leavitt Peak and granitic Tower Peak etched into the southern sky. When the trail crested the saddle, we could see aquamarine Wolf Lake nestled in the rocks below; the forested Carson-Iceberg Wilderness stretched beyond. Clouds had already begun to form on the horizon.

***

At home, Ely barks his head off at any sign of bear, coyote, squirrel or human. If a stranger happens to try to walk up our driveway, Ely springs into protection mode, barking, and eventually, if the warning is not heeded, biting. These are the kinds of things that we see as bad-dog behavior, antisocial problems that have resulted in complaints from neighbors and visits from animal control and even the police. These same behaviors become good-dog behaviors when Ely is on the trail.

Ely would never show aggression to a passing hiker, but once he’s tied up at our campsite, watch out. He stays up all night protecting us from all manner of bear and chipmunk. Though we bring a bear canister, no bear has ever gotten close to our food with Ely around. And strange humans elicit the greatest response, with is fine by me, especially if I’m hiking alone.

Ely was a rescue, formerly known as Buddy. And before that, Yeti. And before that, possibly Cujo. He had cycled through at least three households—places that we have since learned must not have been very nice to him. My husband and I had been trolling Petfinder.com separately, and we each came to the other, saying we thought we may have found “the one.” We showed each other pictures of the same dog, a smiling Chow/Shepherd/Elk Hound. He was scheduled to be at an adoption fair at the Petco in Carson City. “Let’s just go down and check him out,” my husband said. “We need running shoes anyway.”

We both knew that neither of us could just go “check out” a dog without bringing him home, but the people at Petco said this was a very special dog. They said we would have to fill out an application to get on a waiting list, and we wouldn’t be able to take him home right away.

The lady at Petco asked about my elderly dog, Riva, whom we had brought with us to make sure the dogs got along. When she found out that Riva had undergone TPLO on both legs—a $7,000 expense—she told us, “You can take Buddy home!”

“But I thought there was a waiting list.”

“You’re at the top,” she said, looking down at smiling, 14-year-old Riva. “He’s yours. You can take him home now.”

We didn’t buy running shoes that day, but we did end up with a dog.

On the car ride home, the newly named Ely squeezed himself out of the car window. I grabbed his hind legs and dragged him back in as we sped down the highway. Then my husband and I decided to stop at the dog park on the way home. To this day, I am not sure why we did this. With all the trails and open space in Lake Tahoe, there is no real reason to ever visit a dog park. Having a new dog apparently muddled our thinking.

Neither dog seemed interested in socializing with the other dogs. However, Ely trotted over to a seven-foot-tall man in a motorcycle jacket and leather riding chaps. He circled the man, then lifted his leg and peed on him. Proud of his efforts, he did a celebratory after-pee kick, showering the man’s urine-drenched pants with wood chips. We apologized, telling the man that we had just gotten this dog, that we didn’t really know him—he was just barely ours. This did nothing to appease him; he scoffed at us as he tried to wash off in the drinking fountain.

This was just the beginning of Ely helping us make friends.

Ely quickly showed signs of food aggression and guarding, so we fed the dogs separately. Full of wanderlust, Ely taught himself to scale the roof of my two-story A-frame and slide down the other side to the unfenced part of the yard. Once he attained freedom, he took himself for a long walk by the river. When I saw the movie Marley and Me, my first thought was, That’s nothing! Ely makes Marley look like a furry saint. Riva would just look at Ely and shake her head.

But put a pack on Ely, and he is the best hiking companion we could ask for. Ely looks forward to wearing his pack, and once it’s on, he’s all business. Passing hikers exclaim, “He has his own pack. How cute!” but Ely marches by, logging 20 miles a day without complaint. Depending on the terrain, we put his hiking booties on, too, and then he’s a real showstopper. “That dog’s wearing shoes!” people will say. One PCT thru-hiker even said in earnest, “I love your dog. No, really, I love him,” while another thru-hiker whose trail name was Train and who wore a wedding dress (one of the 26 he brought with him on his journey) featured Ely on his blog. While Ely doesn’t exactly love his shoes, and if he wears them too long, he’ll get blisters (like we do), they save his pads on shale and sharp granite.

With his backpack and booties, he’s not only cute, he’s a dog with a job. And as my friend Sandra says, “A dog without a job is a bad dog.” We often forget that dogs are animals. Their affinity for humans has helped them survive on an evolutionary level, but they are still animals with animal instincts. As we have learned from Ely, a questionable puppyhood will hone instincts that clash with household rules. But give a dog a job and those instincts will work for everyone. The behaviors that make Ely a very bad dog—his tirelessness and desire to protect us—make him the perfect hiking partner in the backcountry. Aside from offering us his protection and packing our trash (along with his own food), Ely helps us live in the moment. Backpacking is, after all, a metaphor for life: many miles of slow progression punctuated by moments of excitement and epiphany, beauty and bliss.

***

We descended into the valley of the East Fork of the Carson River, where we stopped for a splash in one of the many pools along the way and enjoyed a creek-side lunch and nap.

After a few days along the Carson, the trail then climbed again along a wildflower-decorated ridge, offering views of the granitic valley below. In another couple of days, we reached the Ebbetts Pass area, where Kinney Lakes offered good camping. Our route then climbed through another surreal volcanic landscape, craggy cliffs notching the Sierra sky. The trail clung to the edge of this ancient volcanic flow, with its rusty pinnacles hovering above like the spires of gothic cathedrals; Indian paintbrush, pennyroyal and mule ears scattered flashes of orange, purple and yellow across an otherwise rocky landscape.

We followed the trail back into the forest, passing a chain of alpine lakes that we all enjoyed swimming in. At the Forestdale divide, we entered the Mokelumne Wilderness, and leashed Ely to comply with wilderness regulations. We traversed the edge of Elephants Back, catching views of the appropriately named Nipple to the southeast and hulking Round Top Peak ahead. The afternoon sun drained us all, especially Ely, who struggled to find shade in the treeless landscape. There would be no place for a belly soak until we reached the saddle and arrived at Frog Lake, so we took off his pack and Tom carried it. I poured the rest of my drinking water over him, hoping it would help. Still, he didn’t want to get up and hike. Sitting there in the sun wasn’t going to work either.

“Try giving him treats,” I said.

Tom took the treats from Ely’s pack and set them in front of him. He ate a few and looked up at us.

“Give him some more,” I said.

Tom gave him a few more, and Ely ate them and then picked himself up off the ground and continued walking. I was relieved; it is one thing to carry his pack, another thing entirely to carry him. But Ely wasn’t overheated, just low on energy, which happens to us all when we spend the day hiking. Considering the exposed ridge of Elephants Back, we were lucky to have the sun. We would not have been able to safely cross the ridge in a lightning storm.

At the saddle, we stopped for a late lunch and a dip in Frog Lake before continuing across Carson Pass. The trail skirted along the side of Red Lake Peak through granite, aspen, juniper and wildflowers until it reached a small pond. Beyond it, we caught our first glimpse of Lake Tahoe—in Mark Twain’s words, “The fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Seeing the lake made us feel like we were already home. At Meiss Meadow, we turned off the PCT and followed the Tahoe Rim Trail toward Round Lake and Big Meadow.

Every day, we hiked as many miles as we could until the afternoon storms forced us to find shelter. Some days, we found a safe spot in a strand of trees, where we would sit on our packs and wait out the lightning. Once the skies cleared, we’d continue hiking until dusk, locate a campsite, feed Ely, then feed ourselves. Ely slept until we got into our tent and then woke up for his all-night patrol duty.

Each afternoon storm seemed more violent than the one of the day before, but the reprieve that last afternoon made us think that maybe the weather pattern had changed.

We woke up at Round Lake and headed for home, more than 20 miles away, hiking the easy three miles to the highway before breakfast. We crossed Highway 89, ate granola and then started up the grade to Tucker Flat. It was still early, but gray clouds tumbled over the pine-swathed horizon.

I asked Tom if he thought we should keep going.

“What are our choices?” he asked.

“I don’t know … turn around? Call someone to pick us up at the Big Meadow parking lot?”

“No way,” Tom said. “I want to hike home.” Ely seemed to agree.

So we continued up the pass. Clouds laddered the sky, shadowed by the first roll of thunder; white flashes ignited the sky. The rain started, and I said, “We’d better find cover.”

The trail clung to the edge of the ridge, exposed. The distance between thunderclaps and flashes narrowed. The gray sky fell as rain, then hail, soaking and then freezing us.

“Here,” Tom said, pointing to a small outcropping of rocks. We crawled under the granite and sat on our packs. The boulders had fallen down the side of the mountain and leaned against one another, creating a space beneath just big enough for the three of us.

The hail bounced into our small cave, but for the most part, we stayed dry. I looked down at Ely, who saw this as the perfect opportunity for a nap. I wanted to be more like him. We couldn’t do anything other than what we were doing—sitting on our packs in what we thought was the safest spot around—so what good would panicking do? Dogs live in the moment, not fearing the real or imagined dangers of the future. This is probably why we love them so much. They teach us how to be happy where we are, even if where we are is squatting in lightning position, rain and hail soaking our skin and fur.

“Is this safe?” I asked.

“Safest place around,” Tom said.

“But we’re right under that giant red fir,” I pointed. “And what if lightning strikes the granite above us? Won’t we get ground splash?”

“We’re okay,” Tom said. Really, we were in the best place within a terrible set of options—the front had moved in too quickly for us to make it back down the exposed ridge. Hovering under this outcropping of rocks was better than standing out on the trail, but just barely.

Rain seeped into the cracks between the granite and fell in curtains around us. That’s when it occurred to me that the water might dislodge the boulders, which would crush us. I tried to concentrate on the smell of wet minerals and earth, of pine sap and sage, but I could smell only my own fear—a mixture of sweat, salt and insect repellent. I pulled my legs up so I wasn’t touching the ground. I tried to see the situation through Ely’s perspective—we were just taking a nap break. Tom had managed to learn a thing or two from Ely; he too had fallen fast asleep. I took out my journal and began to write.

Tom opened an eye and said, “Does it calm you to write?”

I agreed that it did, even though the rain smeared the ink.

That’s when a clap of thunder accompanied a flash of lightning directly overhead, and I yelled, “Frick. Frick. Frick.” Though frick isn’t what I said.

“Stop yelling,” Tom said. “I thought you said writing calmed you.”

“I am calm. This is as much calm as I can manage.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you sure we’re safe here?”

“Well, there’s nothing we can do, so you might as well get some sleep,” he said, and nodded off again. Ely adjusted his position under his pack and let out a sleepy sigh.

Water pooled beneath my pack. The hail had turned to rain, blurring out the forest with its gray veil. Even the air held a smell of burning things, of fire and ash.

Nothing reminds you of your own mortality like a lightning storm—a sky cracking open. Unless, of course, you’re a dog. Then life is here in the present tense, where even if there’s imminent danger, there’s no reason not to be happy. I worry so much that I’ve practically reached professional status, and I am here to say that worrying has never saved me from anything, except maybe happiness.

The hail started again and lightning flashed so close that I could see the after-image in the sky. Tom woke up and said, “Another front moving through. We’re probably going to get some close hits.” This is not something anyone hovering under a pile of rocks in a lightning storm wants to hear.

I counted between the flashes and the claps of thunder. Each one less than a second apart. “Frick,” I shouted again.

“Shhh! With love.” I have always hated being told to be quiet, so this is the way we have come up with for Tom to tell me when I’m being too loud. Which is often.

“I can’t help it.”

“Keep writing,” he said.

The creek bubbled with its white noise. The dog remained unbothered, curled in a ball, asleep. Unflappable dog, unflappable husband. Panic-stricken me.

A mosquito landed on my knee, also seemingly unbothered by the storm as she looked for a way to drill into my skin with her proboscis. I admired her fearlessness as I brushed her away.

The worst of the storm rumbled off into the distance. “Let’s go,” Tom said. We got our packs on and climbed the ridge toward Tucker Flat. A soaked chipmunk lay twitching on the trail, had perhaps fallen from a lightning-struck fir. I could not help but think, That could have been me. The blackened trees charted a history of fire and storm. “I think we should pick up the pace,” I said. I am famously slow except when lightning is involved.

Dusk fell, and we followed the yellow spray of our headlamps. The forest hunched over us, and I jumped away from a bullfrog in the path, an animal I had never before seen in Tahoe. I thought of something E.L. Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This has gotten me through writing books and now it would get me through hiking home at night in the rain. I could see only a few feet in front of me, but I knew that after enough dark steps, I would reach the front door of our house. Ely ambled along, wagging his tail. If Ely could make the choice to be happy, so could I.

“I love hiking with you and Ely,” I told Tom.

“I love hiking with Ely, too. And I love having you in my life.” Rather than to try to decide if this was Tom’s way of getting out of telling me he loved hiking with me, too, I told my mind to Shh! With love, and like Ely, accepted everything for what it was. 

Culture: Stories & Lit
Walking with Misty
Daily routines provide welcome relief at both ends of the leash.

Back in 2004 when my daughter was 10, she and my husband were united in their desire for a dog. Me, I shared none of their canine lust. But why, they pleaded. “Because I don’t have time to take care of a dog.” But we’ll do it. “Really? You’re going to walk the dog? Feed the dog? Bathe the dog?” Yes, yes and yes. “I don’t believe you.” We will. We swear. We promise.

They didn’t. From day one (okay, maybe day two; everyone wanted to walk the cute Cavalier puppy that first day) neither thought to walk the dog. Worse still, when I said, “Misty needs a walk,” they both had excuses at the ready. With Becky, it was always about her homework or extracurricular activities; with Joe, it was his journalism assignments or gym workouts (not to mention his games of Free Cell that he thought I didn’t know about). Hey, I had work, workouts and whatever else, too. But Misty needed walking. Why was I the only one who seemed to get that?

Despite my insistence that I didn’t have time to take care of a dog—really—I gradually came to accept that I would be the one to keep track of her shots, to schedule and keep her vet appointments, to feed and groom her. In short, to be the alpha in her life. Misty, of course, figured this out on day one. She peered up at the three new humans in her life (small, medium and large) and quickly calculated, “The medium one, that’s the sucker in the pack.” While, like most Cavaliers, she wasn’t a candidate for Mensa honors, her survival instinct was exceptional.

Quickly, Misty brought everyone in the household to heel. She trained Becky to sleep with a dog on her head. She trained Joe to brush her teeth (this because I had to draw the line somewhere). She trained all of us to give belly rubs on command. For everything else—well, let’s just say she and I developed something akin to a Vulcan mind meld. She’d look at me with those doleful brown eyes of hers, beam her need, then wait, trusting I would understand—which, bizarrely, I almost always did. In no time, she became my fifth appendage, snoring on my home-office couch as I worked, cradling against my feet as I read, splaying across my stomach as I watched television.

Even so, part of me continued to resent walking duty. Not just once a day. Twice a day. Every day. Joe and Becky had sworn. They’d promised. Yet it was very clear that if my schedule didn’t find the give, Misty wouldn’t get exercised, which exercised me plenty. Not fair, I’d balk silently as she and I walked. Not fair, I’d loudly remind anyone within earshot upon our return home.

Then one day—January 1, 2007, to be specific—my husband’s hematologist uttered an unthinkable word: leukemia. With that, my walk-and-balk tirades evaporated, my head too filled with worry to leave room for petty resentments. Save the two days a week I had to meet magazine deadlines in Manhattan, I now spent eight to 10 hours of each day with Joe in the hospital, doing anything and everything I could to ease his discomfort as he stoically withstood chemo, surgery, then a stem-cell transplant. During those six months of intensive hospitalizations, Becky, 12 at the time, adjusted to other adults being in the house when she returned from school. My work colleagues adjusted to my taking off at a moment’s notice to respond to a medical emergency. Every part of my life shifted; no part of my old routine remained.

Save one: Misty still needed walking. Each day. Every day. Once, preferably twice a day. Initially, when friends and neighbors offered to step in and take her through her paces, I declined because I knew they had their own households, jobs and dogs to deal with. Though I knew they meant well, I couldn’t see my way to further burdening their schedules.

As the months went by, I began to realize that my rejection of people’s kind offers was no longer spurred by considerations about their overcrowded lives. Rather, I actually wanted to walk Misty. Not once a day. Twice. It wasn’t just that the walks were my only opportunity for exercise and fresh air. The walk in the morning before I headed to the hospital was quiet, peaceful, a time to gather my thoughts or just be before the day’s medical drama unfolded. The evening walk was a time to shake off the day’s upsets and let the worry tracks in my head go to white noise.

And then there was this. When dire illness visits your household, it’s not just your daily routine and your assumptions about the future that are no longer familiar. Pretty much everyone you know acts differently. When they see you, their smiles crumble. Invariably, they steer the conversation in the same mind-numbingly repetitive direction: How’s Joe? How’s Becky? How are you? They mean well, but their expressions, their body language, their questions are a constant reminder that your husband might die. In other words, like everything else in your life, the people around you have changed.

Not Misty. Take her out for a walk and she had no interest in Joe’s blood counts, chemo concoctions or bone-marrow test results. If it was just the two of us on the street or in the park, she had only one thing on her mind: squirreling! If we crossed paths with another pet owner walking her pooch, she had a different agenda: sniff that dog’s butt! As she chased ecstatically after a furry rodent or thrust her nose eagerly into the hindquarters of a dog 10 times her size, she was so joyous that even on the worst days, she could make me smile. On a daily basis, she reminded me that life goes on.

Somewhere during these months, she stopped sleeping on Becky’s head and started sleeping at the foot of my bed. After Joe died in 2009, she shifted to his pillow. Sometime after that when a new human named Bob entered the picture, she shifted to the rug, her pillow in tow. Quickly, she trained Bob to give her belly rubs and baths. She’s even trained him to take her on walks.

I’m grateful—but only up to a point. The truth is, after years of balking, I’ve come to savor my walks with Misty. As I watch her chase after a squirrel, throwing her whole being into the here-and-now of an exercise that has never once ended in victory, she reminds me that it’s the effort, not the outcome, that makes life rich. She reminds me, too, that no matter how harsh the present or unpredictable the future, there’s almost always some measure of joy to be extracted from the moment.

Pages