Culture: Stories & Lit
I never had a dog. I grew up in a cat household, with a mother who disliked dogs for their digging and mess and noise. I can’t blame her, as we were five kids who had lizards, hamsters, parakeets, fish, and always, two or three cats.
But I wanted a dog so badly! I wanted a red Cocker Spaniel like Rusty, the fictional dog featured in novels I read again and again. I dreamed of a brave dog like Rusty, who swam into choppy ocean waves to rescue a boy, who sensed that a train was about to crash, who bounded into fields to find a lost girl. His coat was shiny and his eyes alert, and he was a hero.
At 12, I brought home a stray while my parents were on vacation, knowing our elderly babysitter wouldn’t notice. She didn’t. My mother did, on her return, and so the dog went to live at my friend’s house three streets away. I visited, but it wasn’t the same.
When I married my childhood sweetheart, I knew he didn’t want a dog, as he’d been raised with a black Cockapoo who hated everyone under twenty, and demonstrated it by biting them. We bought a house on a busy four-lane avenue, a former farmhouse with a big yard, and we had three kids.
Our first daughter was not a dog lover, as she'd been nipped on the hand by a boisterous Old English Sheepdog when she was two, and shortly afterward nipped on the face by an ill-tempered Sheltie down the block. Gaila likes rabbits. Our second daughter was not a dog lover, because she is obsessed with insects and wants to be an entomologist. Delphine collects bugs.
But our third daughter, Rosette, said Dog before she said Daddy. She is a kindred spirit, as they say. Our neighbor, who babysat her twice a week when I went to work, got a yellow Labrador puppy named Chelsea days after Rosette was born, and they slept together on the bed, Rosette with her fist curled around Chelsea’s felt-soft ear and her thumb in her mouth.
Her father and I divorced when she was only one, and Rosette began asking for a dog as soon as she could form sentences. When she was two, we took a trip to New York, just me and Rosette, and she met every dog in Gramercy Park, where we staying. By the second day she was calling them by name, those city dogs out on their walks, and we had to eat in restaurants with sidewalk tables so we could visit her canine friends, who truly seemed to recognize the smell of her chubby crumb-laden hand.
I tried to prepare: I bought books about puppies and their care, about puppies walking through meadows and cavorting with other baby animals. Rosette had other ideas: “Yellow Labrador, Irish Setter, Border Collie, Basset Hound, Beagle.” She got a dog breed book and we had to study their physical characteristics and temperaments. She was three then. In Prescott, Arizona, she identified King Charles Spaniels after an owner explained how rare the breed was, and she has remembered them since.
Having a child who loved dogs with this kind of passion was fascinating, but also intimidating. I knew we couldn’t get a puppy, as people had warned that work and school would take us away for too long. Having cried for hours over lost or stray dogs on our avenue, Rosette wanted to adopt someone from the Humane Society. So in November of that year, we walked the gauntlet of cages and barking, and wary or pleading eyes.
Rosette went immediately to the shaggy black Spaniel named Teddy, who looked so depressed he barely ambled out to the chain link. The big test was whether a dog could handle us as a family, so I’d brought all my girls and two of their small friends, along with one of our caged rabbits. The shelter assistant brought Teddy to us in the meeting area. He walked over to Rosette, licked her face, and sat beside her. He looked at the other girls as if to say, “Yeah, I see you.” He looked at the rabbit as if to say, “Yeah, you’re in a cage.”
Teddy had been found in a neighboring city, with a slight limp and bruised hip that indicated someone had been kicking him. He’d already been adopted once, but returned by the childless couple who’d kept him in an apartment for up to ten hours as a time, because he urinated inside.
He peed once inside our house, the first day, but never again. He waited patiently for Rosette to let him outside, where she fed him, picked up his poop, and brushed him. Solemnly, she repeated to me, “I made a promise and I am keeping it.”
Teddy is a classic shelter dog, in that he will never have had enough to eat. That first week, he ate a cake, plastic wrap and all, that had been left on the coffee table, and gobbled up a dropped Advil and a Flintstones multivitamin when I cleaned out my backpack. We stayed with him for hours, worried, while he waited for us to drop something else.
He wasn’t a Cocker Spaniel, Rosette assured me, paging through one of her dog breed books until she found him. Teddy had shorter, ragged ears, a taller build, a longer nose. He was a Field Spaniel, Rosette said.
I studied him those first months, wondering about his bravery and nobility. Would he have the chance to save someone, like Rusty, my heroic red Cocker? When I lifted Rosette into the air and twirled her, he ran over and put a paw on her leg to make me put her down. If I tickled her, he wedged his head between us, never growling, but looking sternly at me, as if to say I should know better. Soon, when older sisters or friends were playing rough, Rosette would call, “Teddy!” and with applications of his stinky breath and head butts, he would make them leave her alone. Once, as an experiment, I tackled Gaila, who is my size, and tickled her. Teddy just watched, slightly bored.
Teddy’s job was to save Rosette’s spirit. She has dog love threading through her veins from some ancestor, dog love wound tightly around her heart like the branching arteries displayed in her encyclopedia. Unlike her sisters, she never really had a father who lived in our house. Teddy was hers alone. She slept in his dog bed, and he slept on her small fold-out couch in the living room. He walked her to preschool with me every day, and her class, The Cute Kittens, mobbed him. He never barked or growled or even moved away. In his second week with us, Teddy sat in the middle of a circle of them, 13 three-year-olds, and Rosette talked about him. Then he ate 13 dog biscuits, to please everyone, and didn’t throw up. He submitted to inspections and hard head pats and screaming. His eyes never left Rosette. I realized the extent of Teddy's nobility, and I was willing to accept his neediness.
Because now, four years later, he is a needy dog. He has no other dog friends, though we’ve tried repeatedly. Not even Chelsea, who he attacks along with her sister Hannah, another yellow Lab. Teddy will never accept another canine, even on the sidewalk for casual conversation, and he’s injured himself repeatedly because his version of bravery makes him guard our fenced yard with blind ferocity. He has been bitten on the nose, while barking through the fence, by neighbors' dogs, and hurt his leg chasing Chows and even Pit Bulls. Nearly every house in our neighborhood has at least two dogs, but Teddy will not even wag at them. Two dogs in my brother’s tough pack, which runs in a nearby orange grove, like to visit us: We tried to acclimate Teddy to Soot and Charcoal on the front porch, which was fine until Rosette came banging out of the screen door to see them. Teddy promptly tried to take a chunk out of Soot’s back leg.
Last summer, he destroyed a rear anterior cruciate ligament, chasing down passing dogs like an aging football player. I spent a thousand dollars on your good leg, I told him, when we took him for surgery. Two days in the animal hospital, along with anesthesia, left him altered, so anxious that he has never been the same since. His new ligament works fine, but he won’t let me leave a room, blocking the doorway or the back of my chair with his body, in case he’s abandoned again. His marked resemblance to Richard Nixon on an unhappy day has deepened. Teddy stares at me in the morning, jowly and melancholic because it’s hot, or cold, or windy, or because I was asleep.
He hates it when we leave, and can't be left alone for even five minutes without trying to dig out or jump the fence. What with school and sports and errands, by the time we are done for the day he is beside himself. And that’s just when I usually have six or seven girls here for homework or basketball: Teddy sits under the basket, or sits on their papers, or tries to lie on my feet while I am at the stove, not a happy camper myself by that point in the afternoon.
I wanted a brave independent dog who would keep out the marauding cats trying to kill the rabbits, who would bark at strange men, rather than inspecting them for Del Taco burritos and hot sauce. I realize we are not drowning in the ocean or lost in a field, but some Rusty-like nobility of demeanor would help, rather than the baleful and incredulous eyes that say to me, “You’re trying to get to the cupboard for macaroni and cheese again, and I find that incredibly irritating when I am trying to get comfortable on your instep.” When we tell him to go lie down, Teddy moves five inches, and his look combines glare and guilt in a way that's so presidential that I have to laugh.
A neighbor takes care of him when we go to work or on vacation, since Teddy is terminally anxious now. This summer Rosette turned seven, and on an East Coast trip she brought her dog breed book to identify new friends. She learned the intricacies of Sheltie breeding, studying the double merle; she walked a Jack Russell Terrier, and worried about the breathing of a black Lab with a lung tumor. But the only time she cried was when she missed Teddy. Not her father, or grandparents, or friends. Only her dog.
I have watched her, all these years. No one else feeds or walks Teddy, or picks up his poop, unless Rosette is sick. She doesn’t always remember her homework, and plays no sports, preferring to amble around with her dog. I have had to learn patience from both of them, since Rosette is known as my Velcro child for her clinginess, and Teddy is called “the neediest dog on the planet” by our bemused neighbors, with their rough independent German Shepherds and Rottweilers. But I realize, looking around at my house with its pack of girls, all female animals with hierarchies and assigned spaces and conflicting personalities, that Teddy picked the right place.
He stares at me now, while I write, daring me to move a muscle, draped across the doorway. I am not ashamed to admit that I am used to chaos and company, and when my kids are gone, I need someone else in the house. It helps that I’m accustomed to company that regards me censoriously if I am not doing something useful, like laundry, dishes, walking, dropping crumbs or retrieving dog biscuits. This is the home of needy short animals, and Teddy fits in perfectly, bravely licking up stray puddles of toxic-blue Otter Pops, surviving the inexpert eye-pokes associated with brushing by school friends who have never had a dog, and lying with one eye open under the mulberry tree where Rosette reads, waiting for her to come down so he can rescue her with his patience and devotion.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Doing Double Duty as a Therapy Dog
The day I brought my puppy home to Manhattan, a giant article appeared in The New York Times reducing him to a fashion accessory. Headline news: Boston Terriers, dogs for the hipper-than-thou. But I didn’t get my little guy to lift my social status. I got him to lift my father’s spirits—and add quality to the time he had left.
A note to my husband Geoff and me lay on the nightstand in our spare bedroom, where my father slept on chemo days.
Of course he cared.
He wanted a grandchild, but he didn’t have nine months, and he knew it. The postscript on the note revealed another truth of my father’s heart: Second to grandchildren, puppies are the greatest gift.
My husband lobbied for a Husky. Taxis don’t belong in the mountains, I told him, and sled dogs don’t belong in the city.
“Then a German Shepherd,” he said. “German Shepherds will take a bullet for you.”
Clearly, we had different priorities in the dog department. He was thinking work dog. He was thinking guard dog. I was thinking lap dog.
In the end, we agreed on a breed by marital compromise.
The fairest approach was to go with my father’s preference. He kept a weathered photograph of a Boxer in his wallet, the pet of his Brooklyn boyhood who fetched lost baseballs from under the stoop and ate the broccoli his mother thought he’d finished.
“Boxers fart,” Geoff said.
At least we were talking about something other than cancer.
The dog talk let us be ourselves again.
We settled on Boston Terriers because they resembled Boxers—barrel-chested stance, erect ears and short shiny coat. And apropos of my father’s nature, Boston Terriers epitomized the all-American spirit of the people. That’s what the dog book said.
Picking out a puppy is like house hunting or wedding-dress shopping. You know in your gut when you’ve found the right one. The rescues at The Queens Animal Shelter didn’t warm up to us. At the kennel in New Jersey, the litter had worms. Then a listing on the Internet caught my eye. The breeder lived upstate, near Buffalo. I convinced Geoff to make the trek.
“I called the woman. Her name is Glenda. She has the bitch. Her daughter has the sire. Guess what her daughter’s name is? Jo-lene. Nine hundred people live in their town. Glenda’s husband Harry fixes machine parts.”
Geoff didn’t see why any of this mattered.
“These are the kind of people who have a boat on the lawn,” I said, “the kind of people who know from dogs.”
We met Glenda Hartman at the dirt road that led to her house. A fallen tree blocked the drive path, so we parked and followed Glenda on foot, up the hill. “That’s my son, sawing the branch,” she told us, and a brawny boy of about 19 tipped his baseball cap in our direction.
“You and Harry have how many children?” I asked, trying to get her to like me.
“Six kids and 16 Boston Terriers,” she said. “Harry will tell you about the pups. He’s out back taking the tarp off the boat.”
I winked at Geoff.
Harry washed down the boat and a six-pack of Michelob. One pup bolted out the screen door to greet Geoff and me. “Only fair I knock $100 off his asking price,” Harry said.
We couldn’t imagine why.
Harry Hartman explained as only Harry Hartman could: “One of his little gonads didn’t come down yet.”
Geoff named our puppy “Iverson,” after Allen Iverson, the point guard on the Philadelphia 76ers, because he’s black with one white sleeve like the basketball player in his signature armband.
“Iverson’s a champion,” I say, when he poops on the newspaper.
Geoff beams. “We don’t call him Iverson for nothing.” The NBA’s Iverson was an MVP.
When I’m working from home, the puppy jockeys for space on my desk chair. His wide-set eyes and the white blaze between them give him a quizzical expression. How can you be sad, he seems to wonder, looking up at me. Then he plunks his chin on my knee and lets out a sigh.
If I try to crawl back into bed, he woos me with impish charm. He runs around the living room with the handle of my hairbrush in his mouth. For the love of liver treats, he learns “roll over.” Since my father’s diagnosis, I’ve been trying to make everything okay and thanks to my Boston Terrier, sometimes it is.
My father recently spent an entire month in the hospital. He’d exhausted all treatment options. He couldn’t walk, was fed through a tube, spoke in a whisper. I arrived early one morning to visit him, the two of us alone in the stark room.
“Get me out of here,” he said.
I readied the wheelchair for a trip to the recreation pavilion.
“That’s where we’ll tell the nurses we’re going,” my father schemed and pulled out his intravenous lines. “Wheel me out the side door. Hail us a cab to your apartment.”
An untenable plan, I told him. He’d been prone to falls. His painkillers might wear off. The hospital could refuse to treat him over a stunt like this. “No way, Dad. I love you,” I said, “but there’s too much at stake.”
My father, a meatpacker, a Marine, macho personified, wept into his handkerchief. “I’ve been dreaming for weeks,” he gasped, “of playing with the puppy on a big bed.”
I did what a compassionate daughter ought to do. I helped him into his shoes.
“Do you know who this is?” my father said when I put Iverson in his arms. “This is my grand-dog.” He scratched the black diamond on Iverson’s belly. He bundled Iverson in a blanket and watched him tunnel out. Iverson licked his cheeks wet with kisses. The puppy didn’t see a sick man. He saw a smiling face. And I saw a Boston Terrier keeping my father from fading away.
My dog is no trendy trapping of urban swank. He’s way too cool for that.
Culture: Stories & Lit
But which one does she really prefer?
It’s become an early-Sunday-morning ritual. I stumble out of bed, throw on a ratty robe and wait for my apartment buzzer to go off.
It’s Bill, Becky’s other dad, come to take her for a seven-mile hike up into the wilderness trails of the Pacific Palisades and Malibu. Becky is my two-year-old black Lab. Bill, a steel-grey, captain-ofindustry type, is the capable, commanding and alpha dad who gives Becky the exercise and discipline she desperately craves, while I am the lazy, good-fornothing beta dad she’s forced to live with all the rest of the time.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes two daddies to raise this dog.
My old dog, Sam, died earlier this year; Sam was a once-ferocious mutt who had calmed down over the years, so much so that I could read the paper while taking him for a slow mosey around the block. Becky, recently acquired from a down-onhis- luck screenwriter, is a fancy-shmancy dog, an AKC-registered hound with more papers than a Mayflower descendant. She’s sleek and black and beautiful, like a well-oiled seal, and at 61 pounds, too strong and energetic for me to handle without a Halti, a choke collar, a bridle and a stun gun. (Just kidding about the stun gun.) Laurie,my wife,who’s also in better shape than I am (let’s face it,Dom DeLuise is in better shape than I am) is a mere slip of a thing, and prefers a genteel game of tennis to being dragged by a dog who’s pulling with the power of a tow truck in pursuit of every squirrel, bird, butterfly and blowing candy wrapper that crosses her path.
Which may be why Bill has volunteered to perform this unusual form of community service. Becky leaps up, yipping, at the first sight of his Ford Explorer, her paws scrabbling at the side door, her tongue hanging out, her neck straining at the Louis Vuitton collar and leash.(My wife’s idea,may I add.) Bill gets out to let her in, and I cannot help but admire his taut abdomen, his well-muscled calves, his take-charge attitude; even though he’s a few years older than I am, Bill hasn’t let himself go. I, on the other hand, never really had a hold on myself in the first place.
While Becky and Bill are off hiking and running and romping in the hills, and Laurie’s tearing up a tennis court somewhere, I go back to bed (on a well-timed pick-up day, the blankets are still warm), then set another alarm to get up and throw together a sad excuse for a brunch. Some coffee, some grapefruit juice, some pricey (but good) muffins from the new City Bakery in the Brentwood Country Mart. It’s the least I can do. Laurie tries to get home from her tennis match around the same time as Bill—often accompanied by his equally fit counterpart,Mimi —returns with Becky.
But sometimes they’re all a bit late, and that’s when I have too much time on my hands—time to think about how this all looks. My dog needs another man to give her what she requires, and everybody knows it. She needs the strong, sure hand I do not know how to provide. When we first got Becky, we briefly hired an expensive trainer, a big woman with short-cropped red hair and baseball cap,who observed my dog-walking technique. For a block or two, I did my best to control Becky’s wild and powerful lungings while at the same time trying to reason with her, to explain to her why she needed to stop pulling, or spit out the snail she’d just crunched between her perfect white incisors. “You’re a man of words,” the trainer finally said, fixing me with her gimlet eye. “Yes, I guess I am,” I said, modestly. “I’m a writer.” “Dogs don’t understand many words,” she said, taking the taut leash from my hands and effortlessly removing the squashed snail from Becky’s slavering jaws, all with a magical gesture of some kind and a simple “Leave it.” The dog looked up at me as though thinking, Is that all you wanted? Why didn’t you say so?
Why indeed? Because, as this dog has brought home to me, I lack the dominant gene. I cannot impose my will on anything: I can barely retrieve a soda from a vending machine. Do Becky and Bill, I wonder, laugh about that as they march over hill and dale? What do they say about me and my slothful habits? Does Becky implore Bill, her other dad, to—I can hardly contemplate this—adopt her, to give her the active, fun-filled life that I,with my sedentary habits and submissive nature, can never do?
Do they talk about my bald spot?
When the buzzer goes off again, and Becky bounds into the house, racing for her water bowl, everyone is all smiles.Bill says something nice like, “Oh, Becky’s home again, and wants to see her daddy.” And Mimi exclaims over the muffins.My wife, in her tennis duds, crows about her latest victory, and I try to turn the topic to a book review or an inflammatory editorial—whatever I’ve managed to read in the 15 minutes I’ve been up since the last alarm went off. But nobody’s fooled, not even Becky. We’re all wondering how long we have to keep up this charade, how long we have to go on pretending that Becky needs two daddies at all. I offer everyone more juice, and try to hold the pitcher—still pretty full and heavy—steady as I pour. But everyone, I fear, can see the tremor in my hand. Becky, in particular, doesn’t miss a thing.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A screen treatment
Another guest arrives at the door and rings the bell. Everyone runs over to the door, evidently excited beyond belief, and stands or jumps around, jostling each other while staring at the door and yelling, “WHO’S THERE?!?! WHO’S THERE!?!?!”
The guest on the other side of the door yells back, “WHO’S THERE?!?!? WHO’S THERE!?!?”
Somehow, the new arrival enters and the party resumes as before.
The camera follows several of the guests around, including:
A muscular male dressed all in black who carries a Frisbee everywhere, clutched tightly to his chest. If anyone touches the Frisbee, he whirls abruptly around and stalks off, glaring over his shoulder.
Another man, dressed in plaid, rather jolly, who has a drooling problem. Every so often he shakes his head and drool flies onto adjacent guests, who don’t even notice.
A depressed-looking woman who spends the entire evening methodically ripping a large, stuffed chair to shreds.
A small group huddled together in a corner. They are all talking loudly and at the same time about completely unrelated subjects.
A huge guy, with jeans jacket and tattoo, who goes up to various people, drapes his arm over their shoulders and gives them a giant squeeze. Whoever it is immediately hands their hors d’oeuvre to the guy, who eats it.
A very small old lady with frizzy hair who leaps out from behind the furniture at passersby and speaks sharply to them. Even the huge guy is daunted.
The party Lothario who sidles up to anyone, male or female, and tries to smooch, but often misses the other person’s face. Nobody seems to mind.
Various bits of action occur:
A guest, looking out the window, suddenly gets very excited and yells, “A CAT!!! A CAT!!! A CAT!!!” Everyone rushes to the window and joins in, yelling “A CAT!!! A CAT!!! A CAT!!!”
Two people—one big, one little—grab an appetizer at the same time. They stand stock still, each holding on to it and staring out the corner of their eyes at each other. Suddenly, the big one whirls around and tries to walk off with it. The little person, however, doesn’t let go and is flung around in the first one’s wake.
In the kitchen, several guests have knocked over the garbage and are going through it.
In the backyard, several people with little spades are digging holes.
A fight breaks out in the living room between two guests, but it’s over in three seconds and the opponents hug each other joyfully.
Several guests can be seen hiding bits of food around the living room. They carefully scan for a likely spot, put the food down, then pick it up again and start looking for a better place.
One guest, with his hands full of food, simply holds onto it and snarls at anyone who approaches him. He keeps trying to add more food to his pile, spilling as much as he acquires.
Dinner is served:
Then all the guests eat as fast as they possibly can. Every so often, one guest simply grabs something off the plate of the person next to him/her. Sometimes that person grabs it back.
When everyone’s finished, they jump up and change places to inspect each other’s plates.
After dinner, everyone takes a nap. They are sprawled around the room, some in little groups huddled together, some on their backs on couches with their feet up on the arms and their hands flung over the back, some curled up awkwardly in overstuffed chairs with their chins propped up on the arms. Occasionally, we see limbs twitching and hear little contented noises.
Tug of war.
How many tennis balls can you hold?
A relay race in the back yard where the baton is never passed off. Each member of the team simply grabs hold when his or her turn arrives and everyone runs together.
Tug of war.
Singing together around the piano, but everyone sings a different song.
Grab the tail off the donkey.
Musical chairs, where shoving is allowed and you can sit on more than one chair. The big guy in the jeans jacket always wins.
Outside, on the sidewalk, a passerby is knocked down by a group of departing guests.
Everyone looks very happy, and the good-byes are loud and enthusiastic.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I can't throw. As a child, I was spared the humiliation of never being picked for either team in baseball by my friend Debbie, a prodigy with ball and bat who always chose me. She was a sort of one-person Red Sox Dream Team. Because of Debbie and in spite of me, our team always won, which is to say that hers did. Because I love dogs, I have never inflicted myself on a Golden Retriever or a Lab.
For the last 20 years, I have lived with Alaskan Malamutes. One of the mysteries of dogdom unexplained by science is why the fetch gene is extremely rare in a breed that evolved in the snowball-perfect environment of the Arctic. But rare it is. The typical Malamute has a powerful desire to fly after and seize moving objects but requires that the poor things be edible— squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, moles and mice.What’s more, Malamutes don’t share. If we bipeds want rodent delicacies for dinner, we’re expected to hunt them down ourselves.As to playing fetch, the Malamute attitude is that if you wanted those balls, you shouldn’t have thrown them away.
Or so I always believed. Then along came my Django, who is named for a legendary jazz guitarist but who should properly have been called Lou, Babe or Mickey. The dog is a fetch fanatic. When the rare gene manifests itself in Django’s breed, its effect is typically suppressed by competing genes that prevent Malamutes from engaging in such servile activities as picking up after members of a useful but lesser species.My late Kobuk would return a ball to me five or six times before he’d reach the disappointing realization that it was not going to spring to life and turn itself into a snack.My Rowdy never once retrieved anything but her obedience dumbbell,which she correctly viewed as currency exchangeable for beef and liver. She regarded Django’s insatiable appetite for fetch as stupid and treasonous; in her disdainful eyes, he was a brainless traitor to a proud and predatory breed.Rowdy’s scorn bothered Django not at all.Malamutes don’t give a damn about the opinions of others, including the heretofore universal opinion that I can’t throw.
So we play ball, Django and I. As I toss the ball, I follow the advice of athletically gifted friends: Just as Debbie used to advise, I keep my eyes on the spot where I’d like to have the ball land.Meanwhile, all on its own, the ball leaps out of my grasp and comes to rest elsewhere. On some occasions, it mysteriously drops to the grass at my feet before I’ve had the chance to launch it into the air.When the mood strikes it, it travels great distances and lodges itself in the depths of hedges. Once in a while, it perversely decides to roll under the gate and out of our yard.
True pitching, as I understand it, occurs when a human being sends a tiny little round object soaring through space in such a fashion that it miraculously arrives at a predetermined place. In my experience, true pitching is thus an aberration, perhaps, or a freakish coincidence, the kind of bizarre phenomenon that happens once in a trillion times and then only by accident. It has never happened to me.
Does Django care? He does not.Never once, even while digging through forsythia roots after his ball or while watching it fall like a dead thing at my feet, has he ever accused me of being unable to throw. On the contrary, he enjoys the delusion that I am Debbie. In his view, the Red Sox lost gold when they lost me. If you ask Django what he thinks of my pitching, he’ll tell you that by comparison with me, Curt Schilling throws like a girl. And that’s why I write about dogs.
On-call for roundup work
My mother was born 1916 to immigrant parents; her mother was from Hungary and her father was German. She grew up in New Brunswick, N.J. Fido—who was, I think, a Border Collie mix—was their pet, but he was also a working dog, and he took his job quite seriously.
My German grandfather was a butcher, and in those days (the 1920s), worked right next to the stockyard. Sometimes things would get a little crazy at the stockyard—a fence would break and a lamb would get loose, or maybe a pig would run off.
My mother recalls that her father would often call home and ask to speak to Fido. My grandfather would tell my mother to put the earpiece to Fido’s ear and hold it there. Fido—who could understand German, Hungarian and English—would listen intently. After he had heard enough, he would run to the front door; my mother would open it for him and off he’d go.
The stockyard was a couple of miles from their home, and if a neighbor saw Fido running down the street, he would be offered a ride to work. Needless to say, Fido was on a mission and usually would not accept a ride. It took him about 10 minutes to get the stockyard under control, rounding up strays and ordering unruly animals back in their pens. He was definitely at his best working, and happy to be of help.
The list goes out the window when the perfect dog comes in the door
I used to stop at Point Isabel, a sprawling off-leash dog park after work for my minimum daily requirement of canine affection. On occasion, a dog owner would ask why I didn’t have a dog. “It’s complicated,” I’d say, remembering the dogs I’d had in my life. Job, child, husband, aging parents, a weedy garden, house in need of constant repair—the dog wound up being just another burdensome responsibility.
But now I was older and wiser, minus one husband, and my daughter would be leaving home soon. Passing all those pooches at the dog park was briefly pleasurable, but not satisfying. Their devotion was reserved for their own special human companions. And that is what I longed for—something I was missing from family and friends, something humans just couldn’t provide.
So how to find the right dog for me? A good dog, a mellow dog, a dog who was good with cats (I have two), smart but not devious, a midsize dog, possibly a Lab mix, not a puppy. My list of druthers was long. Knowing about breeds and certain tendencies helps, but in the end the question remains: How do you pick the right dog?
My daughter had wanted a dog for years, and when we went to the Oakland (Calif.) SPCA together on that cool Sunday afternoon, we thought we were looking for a dog for her. The Oakland SPCA is not a kill shelter. It’s clean and well-lighted, and the attendants are very loving and tender with the animals. Still, looking at all the barking dogs shivering in their cages upset and unnerved me. Whatever I thought I was looking for escaped me, and all I wanted to do was to get out of there. That’s probably how the animals felt, too.
Finally, we came to the very last cage, which held a smallish honey-colored Chihuahua/Basenji/Jack Russell mix, about a year old, whom they had named Precious. Melina was instantly drawn to the little dog, and we went out to the yard with her and one of the attendants. Once Melina picked her up, she immediately began licking her face. This desperate, needy pup was cute as a button, but plainly not the right dog for me. Melina, however, insisted, saying, “Mom, we have to get her out of here.”
Though I wasn’t sure at that moment that Precious was the one, I decided to go with Melina’s plea. “We’ll have to change her name” was all I said. And so we dubbed her Honey and brought her home. It didn’t take long to find that not only was she housebroken, but she also knew the commands sit, stay, down and come.
She was also great in the car, cuddled pint-size under the covers and played well with other dogs. And though Melina had chosen her, it was crystal clear that Honey was my dog and I was her person. This perky mutt, who matched not a single one of my requirements—not mellow, not a Lab mix, terrible with cats—became, much to my surprise, my love bug.
Honey has easily adapted to our work and school schedules, and the cats have figured out how to deal with her. I wake up early to take her to the dog park, and race home after work to be greeted by more unconditional love than has ever licked, jumped, nibbled and danced at me in my entire life. She leaps like a deer, talks to me when she wants something, makes me laugh, feeds my soul.
The best-laid plans and all that jazz went out the window. Thanks to my daughter and perhaps even a little divine intervention, the right dog for me burst into my life when I least expected it. When I was a young girl, I believed in soul mates; now I believe in soul dogs. And now I get to say, “Hi, Honey, I’m home!” every night.
Culture: Stories & Lit
But two hounds get it said
The tree is decorated, the stockings are hung, the Yule fire burns low and, according to an old tradition, at midnight on Christmas Eve … the animals speak.
COMET (Beagle, about age four): You think that’s Alex Trebek’s real hair?
C: Alex Trebek. You think that’s a hairpiece?
Culture: Stories & Lit
Lending a Hound a helping hand.
It was last summer when I found her. I was going to get a coffee at this place on Bull Street right next to a dog park. The heat had come already, but it wasn’t yet the wet, suffocating, thick, thick burning of late July and August.
I’d only experienced one summer in the South and I’d quickly learned that it was something you survived— a test of endurance and stamina. Just walking from my apartment to the car, I’d be drenched and sticky with sweat. The sun beat down mercilessly. The air constricted your lungs.
outta my last rehab. I fell in love with a girl who went to school down there, so I scrounged up the money for a Greyhound ticket and rode the bus for four days across the desolate, ugly, flat, flat highways of the central United States. I was broke, starving, exhausted. Actually, all I had to eat the whole time was a package of peanut M&Ms. I was skinny, skinny and dirty and wild. I’d been sober only three months. My last detox, off meth, heroin, cocaine, Xanax and an opiate blocker called Suboxone, was absolutely the most wrenching, terrible, painful thing I’d ever experienced. My body pulsed with tiny seizures as an electrical storm raged through my brain.
My stomach was a lake of burning oil fires, and I didn’t sleep for nearly two weeks. I mean, no sleep at all. The process of getting clean was long and raw and emotional. I was a mess, and the habits I’d picked up on the streets were nearly as hard to kick as the drugs—stealing, lying, scanning the curb as I walked for fallen change, or cigarettes, or maybe a purse or something.
There was a time when some family friends had tried to help me get sober, taking me from being homeless in San Francisco to their spacious apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I’d already become too feral and crazy. I stole from them.
I bit the hand that fed me, as they say. So, coming to the South, I was determined to do things differently. I moved in with my girlfriend and got a job at her school. I started working on my book again, a memoir about my addiction and my struggles growing up. I’d been sober nearly a year. And that’s when I found her, or, uh, you know, she found me.
I was walking in to get a coffee. It was summer, like I said, but not yet so hot that I couldn’t stand it. A woman called out to me.
It took me a minute to figure it out, but, yeah, she was calling to me. Her voice was all raspy like she’d smoked too many cigarettes, or, after looking at her, too much pot.
She was probably in her late 50s, with tangled grey hair and a sack dress covering her heavy body. She had beaded necklaces hanging down, and round Janis Joplin sunglasses. She was bent low, her arms wrapped around a shivering dog.
“Hey,” she yelled. “Hey, kid, can you come help me?”
The dog was super skinny—its ribs stuck out, its nipples were swollen and hanging down. It trembled, trembled, trembled as I came closer. It looked maybe like a Beagle, but with long legs and big, bugged, terrified eyes.
“I just found her,” the woman said.
I grabbed the dog by her neck and tried to lead her forward to my car. That was no good. She wouldn’t move. Eventually, I just picked her up and carried her shivering against me. As soon as she got inside, she climbed behind the passenger seat and curled up in a ball on the floor. I drove off, my heart beating fast—wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. At the shelter they agreed to check her out and put her up for adoption if I was willing to foster her until they could find her a permanent family. I had two cats at home, not to mention my girlfriend, but I figured they’d all be okay with it. They said she was a Hound mix, maybe Walker and Fox Hound.
When they led the dog by a rope leash into the back, well, that was when the problems really started. A vet tech with a needle went to give her a shot. The dog’s eyes went glassy, staring unblinkingly at her. And then the dog lunged, lip curled back, teeth out, barking, snarling, growling—ready to tear the tech apart in order to defend herself. I grabbed the rope and pulled the dog back and told her, “No!” and for some reason, she didn’t bite me, but instead took shelter behind my legs. And so the people at the shelter told me to have her killed. They wouldn’t work with her, and said that my only option was to drop her off at Animal Control.
I walked her outside. She was uncomfortable on the leash and kept stopping and tucking her tail between her legs. As I led her back to my car, scared she might turn on me at any second, I suddenly noticed she’d been scouring the ground and had picked up a Snicker’s wrapper. She was chewing on it frantically.
I took a breath.
I got her back in the car. I wasn’t going to Animal Control. I drove her home. She spent the first few days outside in our little back yard, huddled beneath a covering of bushes.We managed to get her a bath and out to another vet, though she had to be muzzled so she wouldn’t go after anyone there.
I wanted to name her Guitar Wolf, of course, but my girlfriend wouldn’t go for that, so she picked out Ramona and we put Guitar Wolf in the middle and then Jackson at the end, ’cause that’s the best last name ever. And so Ramona Guitar Wolf Jackson became our dog.
She was bad. I mean, so totally bad. She chewed up our house, ran away, jumped on people, lunged at all large men and anyone who ever tried to bum a cigarette off me.
She woke me up early and in the middle of the night and I had to walk her all the time.
Actually, it was really our walking together that made me fall in love with Ramona. Teaching her to trust, to understand that the world didn’t need to feel so threatening any more. I cared for her, like all those people had cared for me—taught me how to live and really participate in life again. So we’ve just walked and walked around Savannah.
Ramona and me…or, I.
Eventually, she’s learned to play off leash with other dogs in the stretching out parks. I gave her another chance, you know, and now she follows me everywhere.
This is my penance and one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever known. So when Ramona gets scared and comes cowering up next to me, I rub her ears and tell her to hold on. ’Cause that’s the same thing I tell myself.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Saving robins, one fledgling at a time
It was the dead of summer and scorching temperatures had parched the ground and burnt the grass that surrounds our complex of cottages. Helen, my Bull Terrier mix—all white with coffee-colored splotches, heavy-chested, and 58 pounds of tough-looking docility—was gently nosing something in the yard. I approached, quietly asking, “Did you find something, Helen?” (I talk to Helen about everything and she understands me completely.)
The “something” turned out to be a baby bird, scrawny, with that loose, puckered, “chicken” skin common to newly hatched birds. The tiny beak stretched up to the sky, opening and closing right next to Helen’s nose. Helen looked curious, quizzical even; she tilted her head to the side, not knowing what to make of it, but instinctively knowing it needed some help. Poised over the bird, she looked at me, bowed down to the bird’s beak, looked back at me.
“Look,Helen, a baby bird!” I exclaimed.Helen caught my excitement. “Where is its mama? Where is its nest?”Helen obediently looked around. I inspected the huge maple tree over my head and, not seeing any nests to which to return the fallen bird, filled a small plastic basket with leaves, twigs and grass, then gently placed the chick inside. I positioned the basket near the cottage porch, where we quietly waited for the mother to find her baby. Soon, a large robin hopped along the grass, landed on the basket and attended to the infant. As the days passed, Helen and I were patient observers, greeting that bird each morning and supplying the mother with worms for feeding. One morning, however, there was no little bird in our basket.“Where is the baby bird,Helen?” I asked in a sweet, high voice with just a touch of distress. Helen looked in the basket, sniffed it and then began sniffing the ground, looking for a scent. I heard a slight chirping sound in the distance.
We followed the sound,Helen with her nose to the ground. We walked around to the backyard, and Helen found the chick nestled beneath a bush. “Hello, baby bird. How are you?” I exclaimed, and Helen gently gave the bird a tiny nose nudge.Mama robin observed from the roof next door, stressfully, anxiously twirping.We left the family alone, removing ourselves to a peaceful distance. Thereafter, every morning, Helen found the chick’s new hiding place, and we greeted him joyfully while mama looked on.
One day, we searched and listened, searched and listened. Alas, we did not hear any chirping and could not find the baby bird anywhere! Concerned, we strolled slowly between and around the cottages.
Suddenly, mama robin swooped down from a rooftop, landing on the ground directly in front of us. She was agitated—twirping and chirping and calling in distress. I was startled that she had landed so close to us, directly in front of the unrestrained Helen. She hopped a few paces, turned and looked at Helen and me, hopped along and looked back at us, hopped and looked back, making sure we were following her.
The three of us—bird, dog and human—continued this way, passing three separate cottages, when suddenly we heard a faint “chkkk, chkkk, chkkk.” The mother bird led us right to the edge of a deep window well.We peered in, and there was that fledgling bird, two feet down, chirping its little heart out and making tentative flapping motions with its wings. Mama bird looked at us expectantly. I gently cradled the chick in my hands, and returned it to its improvised nest, placed in the crook of a large maple tree. The next morning, Helen and I were delighted to see mother and juvenile together on a neighboring rooftop.
Now, when I ask,“Where’s the birdie?”Helen looks all over, searching for fledgling birds. Each year we keep track of those new little ones, which we find hiding in bushes, behind garbage cans, sometimes beneath cars. On occasion, when I say, “Where is it? I can’t find it,”Helen runs to the window well and peers in, just to make certain it isn’t harboring a fallen bird that needs our help.
To this day, I am astounded and touched by the determination and trust of that mother bird, the gift of our intimate encounter, and the intelligence and gentleness of an amazing dog.How little we know of nature until we take the time to observe it.How fortunate I am to have Helen to show me the way.
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