Culture: Stories & Lit
Giving new meaning to the term “assisted living.”
My sister left me a phone message : “I think Mom has had a stroke.” It was shorthand for us, a message my sister and I have exchanged many times, whenever our mother was particularly difficult or unreasonable.“Having a stroke” meant our mother was irrational, belligerent, mean, needy or any of the other possibilities that crop up regularly between women who care too much for each other. If I called my sister back every time our mother “had a stroke,” I would have to wear a phone headset and my sister would need to invest in a toll-free number.
Several hours later, I got a more frantic message from my sister. “Didn’t you get my message? I’m in the emergency room with Mom. I think she’s had a stroke.” And then she added, because she must have figured out why I hadn’t called her back: “A real stroke.” So began a journey that was to teach me about a lot of clichés; among them, the limits of love and the importance of not losing heart. And this is where Mom’s dogs,Daisy and Pumpkin, come in, for in many ways,we were in the same bind:We were three gals who had lost our mommy, and we didn’t know what we were going to do next.
To say that Daisy and Pumpkin are Mom’s dogs is like saying that there’s a lot of water in the Pacific Ocean. It’s essentially true, but it doesn’t begin to describe the degree or the depth of the situation. My mother has always had dogs and has always been devoted to them, but since my father’s death12years ago, and my aunt’s death a few years later, Daisy and Pumpkin have become her family, her tribe and her friend base. “My fur people,”Mom calls them. It fell to me, in the midst of dealing with Mom’s medical crisis, her frantic friends and her unraveling life, to figure out what to do with Daisy and Pumpkin.
Of course, I had promised my mother —five years ago and nearly every week since then—that if anything ever happened to her I would take care of her dogs.And so I began to call her friends, relatives and acquaintances. Everyone wanted to help.“What can we do?” they asked.“What we really need,”I told them, “is for someone to take care of the dogs.” “Well,” they’d say,“what else can we do?” Several people offered to help by taking the dogs to the vet to be “put down.” Even the local no-kill shelter said,“Bring them in and we’ll euthanize them.” I learned quickly that being alone, elderly and female is perilous, whether one is canine or human. Every day I would return from the hospital and tell the dogs not to worry, that I would think of something. And every day, as it became clear that Mom would not be able to return home, I said it with less conviction.
I admit that Daisy and Pumpkin were a hard sell. Here is the ad I would have had to run in order to find a new home for them: “Wanted. Home for two 14- year-old, deaf, possibly blind, obese, flearidden, mangy, matted, incontinent dogs. Have never heard the word ‘No.’Will eat only Beef ’n’Cheese Snausages and Booda Smacklepuffs Chicken Quesadilla Dog Treats, and then only if you hand-feed them one by one. Both bark incessantly, so you’ll never have trouble with burglars (or your friends, ever again) entering your house. No need to walk them; they just pee on the carpet when nature calls. Comfy sofa a must.” But finding a new home for them wasn’t an option, because even though Mom could hardly speak, she mustered enough strength to tell me she would die if anything happened to her dogs. Every day in the hospital, it was the same story: How are the dogs? Who’s taking care of the dogs? When can I see the dogs? It was her mantra, one of the few ways we had to measure that she hadn’t lost her mind entirely. If she stops asking for the dogs, I decided, we’ll declare her gone.
Daisy and Pumpkin had each been through adoption fairs, foster homes and humane societies before my mother took them in. Mom had spotted Daisy at an adoption fair and had fallen madly in love. She had made my father sit on Daisy’s crate while she went to fill out the forms, so afraid was she that someone else would snap Daisy up.Daisy had been with Mom through my father’s illness and death and has been her companion during all the years since. Pumpkin had been my Aunt Barbara’s dog, and Mom had ended up with her after Barbara’s early death from brain cancer, when there was no one else who could take her. This was at least the third time that no one had wanted Pumpkin.
Except for me. I wanted Pumpkin. And Daisy. After two weeks of caring for them in my mother’s house, I wanted both of them. I wanted their incessant barking, their fatness, their blindness, their weird eating habits reinforced by years of my mother’s singular parenting style.We were, I figured, sisters under the skin, or fur. I wanted everything about them. I wanted them to come and sleep on my sofa. I wanted them to shed bales of fur in my house. I wanted them to bark until my eardrums frayed. I loved them both with a fierceness that astounded me, and I was not about to have them “put down” or sent to a “nice home in the country.” Taking care of them was perhaps the only thing I could do for my mother, and I was determined not to fail.
I live on the other side of the country from my mother, and my rescue illusions bumped up against reality when the vet told me that there was little chance Daisy and Pumpkin would survive a plane trip or a long car ride. My mother moved into assisted living, and Daisy and Pumpkin moved temporarily to Camp Bow Wow, where they played outside with other dogs and slept in “cots” in their “cabins” at night. Since returning home to Seattle, I’ve watched them on the CamperCam as they trot around with their new pack and get their ears scratched by the staff. Daisy and Pumpkin look happy. Pumpkin has lost weight and they both play avidly with the other dogs. Camp Bow Wow is about a mile from my mother’s assisted living apartment, and friends take the dogs to visit her a few times each week.
From the beginning, I considered Camp Bow Wow to be a stopgap, a place where Daisy and Pumpkin could be cared for until I could figure out how to get them to Seattle.We could afford to keep them there for a month or two at the most, and after that I was out of ideas.
And this is the part of the story where human generosity and the importance of not losing heart come in, for just as I was reaching a point of despair about not being able to keep my promise to my mother, I learned that it is not just I who unexpectedly fell in love with my mother’s dogs. Tony Caruso and Kim Martin, “rangers” at Camp Bow Wow, called to tell me that they wanted to foster Daisy and Pumpkin for us, that the dogs could stay at Camp Bow Wow for the rest of their lives, as a favor to us and as a way to help my mother get better. Daisy and Pumpkin won them over with their determination to make the best of a bad situation. Tony and Kim were touched by my mother’s devotion to her dogs and by our dedication to not giving up on them. They are in a position to help and they would like to do so. Would we possibly consider their offer?
It is not perfect for Daisy and Pumpkin to live the rest of their lives at Camp Bow Wow. There are no antique sofas to sleep on, no mailmen to attack, no junk food. They will see my mother only sporadically and, like my mother, will never return “home.”But it is as perfect a solution as we are likely to find. All three of these elderly ladies, down on their luck and in failing health, have gone into assisted living. The dogs won’t ever again live with my mother, but they will live with people who saw their plight and were able to love them because of it.
In one of the darkest times of my life, when I was faced with both losing my mother and breaking my promise to her, Daisy and Pumpkin showed me what true compassion, generosity and love look like. They helped me take care of my mother and keep my promise. Near the end of their lives and with the help of Camp Bow Wow and Tony and Kim, Daisy and Pumpkin rescued me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Memory as an antidote for loss.
Kennel man says, “Ever had a dog before?”
He’s yellow. Very short hair, not shiny or lustrous. Strong looking. Ellen keeps thinking that. Not pretty, in fact, he gives her the creeps. He hasn’t looked at her yet.
Kennel man says, “You gotta take him?”
She has never met this dog before.
Against her better judgment, she puts the back of her hand to the chain link; he covers it with his wide tongue, thankfully.
“Open the gate,” she says.
He drops the key onto the aisle floor beside her. “You open it.”He clears the area before she can.
Dante leans out. Kisses her face excessively. It’s not pure friendliness, there’s something straining and desperate and apologetic about it.
She reaches in for his dish of untouched kibble, sits in the aisle, on the cold concrete, Dante lying heavy on her legs, and he eats kibbles one at a time out of her hand.
There’s something to be said for alcoholism, though I admit I’ve reached this conclusion vicariously. Carrie used to be one, and she told me all about it. She says she still is, but that’s beyond me. Alcoholics drink. Carrie doesn’t.
After 30 white-knuckle days of not calling Grant, nobody gave me a nice little medallion to wear on my keychain. At the vast watermark of a year, no cake. Nobody sang. At Grant’s memorial, even though I didn’t know those people, I was sharply aware of their potential failure to appreciate that accomplishment. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
We were on a hill, this bunch of strangers and me, looking out over Mariner’s Cove. A string quartet played, because Grant loved classical music. Of course he did. I never knew that about him until that moment. I remember being glad I’d never played Elvis Costello when he was over. Somehow I thought I’d left Grant just in time to avoid that moment where I realize I didn’t know him. That’s kind of a joke though, because I remember why I finally broke it off. You’re with a man for almost two years, you should know where he lives, and you should have met his dog. Even I can see that’s not natural.
You get angry, thinking about what you don’t know.
There was one familiar face there, but I tried to avoid it. His name is Wilson Greene. He introduced me to Grant, he hasn’t quite gotten over the fact that something came of that introduction, I haven’t quite forgiven him for starting the rolling snowball of events.When I saw him coming, I tried to duck.
Meanwhile I was thinking, this is all wrong. Crashing surf and strains of classical music. In my family, we had organ music and a lot of screaming and crying. This is way too genteel. My thoughts become disjointed in stress situations.
Wilson put his hand on my arm.
That doesn’t entirely answer the question. Please don’t tell me which one she is. “What’s the dog’s name?”
Dandy? Grant’s dog? I think not. “So, listen,Wilson.” I put an arm around his shoulder, turned him back to face the stately congregation. “Tell me.Which one is his wife?”
They cross the fence line together. She unclips the leash. Since leaving Grant, she’s moved to a rural locale. Life here is not as simple as she had hoped. For the first time, they see cattle. Glimpses of them lumbering between scrawny pine and scrub oak. Foraging. Dante gathers like a crossbow. Launches. In the second of gathering, she notices his build. His chest. Rangy but muscular. Such a powerful machine. It frightens her, even though he’s on her side. A loaded gun in her hand would be on her side, but its potential would frighten her.
She screams his name.
This is private grazing land, they shouldn’t, technically, be here. But she can’t take the dog around other animals, and he needs to run. And Dwight said she could. Dwight, he stays in the caretaker’s cabin.He’s a close friend, Dwight. Very close. He said she could, if the dog doesn’t run cattle.
“If he runs cattle, keep him home or I’ll have to shoot him.”
As she crashes through the brush, screaming his name, he comes crawling back. Her voice is like an earthquake to him. Slithering through pine needles and poison oak on his belly, showing his teeth. She’s still not comfortable with that, though it’s clearly passive. Grovels at her feet, licking her shoes. She never yelled at him before, and now she wonders if he’ll ever get over it.
They walk on to Dwight’s cabin, Dante bounding ahead. A short parade of cattle wander across the road. Dante freezes, stares at the dirt close-range until they survey him and move on.
They arrive at Dwight’s cabin, Dwight meets them out front.
Dante puts his head down, growls low in his throat. She has yet to find someone Dante likes, but he likes Dwight less than most. Already.
Dwight approaches carefully, one hand extended. Goes down on one knee. Speaking low. Offers the back of his hand. Dante’s lip peels back, very differently. He snarls, leaps forward to attack the air, biting down less than an inch from Dwight’s hand. More show of teeth, and a long, rolling growl. Dwight pulls back in slow motion. White-faced.
Dante sits at Ellen’s heel, leaning.
Dwight throws her a chain. A big, heavy chain, the sort you’d use to haul a car out of the mud. She chains Dante to a tree and joins Dwight on the porch. As she walks into his arms, the yelping splits the air like a scream. They watch the dog hit the end of his chain and flip over onto his back, repeatedly, mouth foaming with the sweat of his exertion.
Dwight says, “I do believe that dog is crazy.” “I better go get him.”
She follows him inside, where he undresses her, and pins her to his bed, like so many times before. His pants are halfway off, hobbling him around the knees, when something slams against his door. From the sound, something about the size of a tractor.
They can hear him chewing at the door. Tearing at the door. Dwight kicks a leg out of his pants and runs to the window, his urgency mirroring her own. If Dante wants in, she figures he’ll get in. Dwight pulls back the curtain, and the shadow, the shape, crashes against the glass, shatters it, but bounces off again. Dwight locks himself in the bathroom before the next, successful leap. Dante hits the bathroom door once, as if for effect, then stands with his head down, growling, intimidating it.
“Dante!” He jumps onto the bed beside her, slapping his tail. Kisses her face. She checks him for damage. Blood, some, on his face, and one leg. Nothing deep or dangerous looking. “Oh, Dante. You broke your collar.”
Dante rests his head between his front paws in shame.
Dwight sends her a bill for the damage; she pays it without comment.
I dwell on the past. Always have.
Lying in bed with Grant. After. My mind a perfect blank, because that’s how it always was.My body and head hollow, humming, like a tuning fork almost ready to go still. But not quite.
My eyes closed.
It was always better than great with Grant, but mostly with my eyes closed, because none of his greatness was visible. So I wondered, sometimes, if I was imagining, manufacturing the good parts. I never held tangible proof of their existence.
When I first told Carrie she said, “Ooh. Tell me all about him. Is he young, is he handsome, is he hung?”
Even one out of three might have redeemed me, but as it was, I didn’t answer.
“So, the sex is, like, great, right?”
Don’t talk, Grant. Just enjoy the moment. It’s gone so long, in between.
“Nothing will happen to you. Don’t be silly.”
By this time he was putting on his clothes. He’d stayed longer than usual.
I wanted to, because I always wanted to be what he wanted. Helpful. Intelligent. Loyal. I felt like a Girl Scout in his presence. I firmly believe Grant died owing me a handful of merit badges I worked hard for and will never see.
“I’ve never even met your dog, Grant.”
But he didn’t.
We went to bed, it was phenomenal, as always, even though I knew what I would say when it was over. I knew if he didn’t bring the dog, that was the last straw.
I didn’t call to change my mind. I guess I thought if I could hold out long enough, it would be that great with somebody else.
The need for him cycled like a recurrent fever, hid around corners waiting to trip me. Swept me offshore like a rip current. The missing him. It sang to me, an opiate drug reminding me how warm and familiar it had always felt, could always feel again. How easy it would be to fall back into. But I didn’t call. Thinking the Universe would reward my resolve.
It’s never been that good with anybody else. And God knows I’ve tried. At least it was over before I promised to take the damned dog I’d never met. It irked me that I’d forgotten to ask the dog’s name. There’s always one thing you can’t let go of, and it’s usually something peripheral and fairly unimportant. I guess it’s easier that way.
Carrie says, “Maybe you should change his name. It might make him sound friendlier.”
Ellen says, “I don’t think the issue is how he sounds.” She sits on the floor by the window with her arm around the dog. They both hold still because Carrie is sketching them for a portrait. Dante seems to understand the art of posing. Dante seems to understand everything. Ellen is beginning to think the kennel man was right.Maybe there’s only just so smart a dog should be. “What do you think I should call him?”
Carrie seems to consider this, and when she decides, Ellen knows by her smile. “Grant’s Revenge.”
At first it seemed rational to think she’d leave the dog at home and go to his place, whoever he was. But she has not succeeded in leaving the dog alone. He’ll get out, and follow. Through a window if necessary. So she takes him places with her, or she gets Carrie to baby-sit.
Since leaving the city, she works at home, on the Internet. Thank God.
Potentially she could leave the dog with Carrie and go to his place, but Carrie has a life, too, and Ellen hasn’t found a him who doesn’t consider that a burdensome limitation.
“So, do you think that’s why Grant did it?”
She realizes that if she were to die, she’d have to obligate someone to Dante, too.
“So, in other words, Grant’s dead, and you’re still being the one person he can always count on.”
Dante breaks the pose. Slinks, and pushes his head onto Ellen’s lap.
“Who, Grant or the dog? I wish you would be careful what you say around him.”
When her footsteps are gone, Dante sits up. She puts her arms around him. Feels a slight tremble in his muscles as she holds him. “We both miss him. Huh, Dante?” She gets up quickly to make a cup of tea. Unable to identify what that will solve. How tea will be an antidote for loss.
Dante whines, long and low, and when she’s left the room, looses a long, modulated, unnerving howl which raises goosebumps on her skin. And leaves her thinking that she can never find just the right words.
Lately I’ve been troubled by vivid limited memories of Grant, and they make me worry about love. I don’t like so many questions being raised at a time in my life when I feel I should have some answers.
One thing I know for sure about love. It’s a bitch of a thing to identify in retrospect. Concerning a dead man. But I guess, dead or married it’s all the same to me at the bottom line. Only, dead is safer.
In one memory, I come up on him sitting in a chair, putting his socks on, and I kiss the very top of his forehead. Where I’m sure he had hair in his youth, but not much at the time. See, something else to fault him for, but it doesn’t work. I remember his chest, easing down on me, I think this must be a sexier thought if the guy had a flatter, tighter stomach. Less hair on his chest and more on his head. But, Dwight was young, handsome and hung and I don’t think about him much anymore.
It’s not that I like older, balder, smaller, soft-muscled men better, because the world is full of them if that was the only problem. It’s something about the exact sum of Grant, like a DNA strand, and any substitution seems to ruin the equation.
See, I worry that I might have just described love.
I met a guy who didn’t seem to feel my strange dog was an undue hardship. In fact, I think he respected that about me. So I told him at great length how I happened to come by Dante. When I was sure he would never call me again, my relief felt so tangible that I had to admit I did it on purpose.
Carrie says, “I changed my mind. I don’t think you should get rid of the dog. I think this might be good for you.”
Ellen moves to a different house in an even more remote location. She hopes Dante lives to be 15, at least. More time to think.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Day care diva earns her title.
My dog Maeby has always gotten good grades.
Every evening when I pull into the driveway at the doggy day care center that she attends,Maeby, a fluffy Aussie/Lab mix, is waiting for me, along with her daily report card.
Although it is fanciful thinking that one day the center might provide classes in “The Mailman Is Only in It for the Pension and Not Your Territory, Therefore the Barking Looks a Little Silly,” “A Fart Is a Fart and Not an Invisible Stench Rocket, So Stop Looking for It” or “Picking Up Your Own Poop,”my dog consistently got good marks in areas of interest such as playing nicely with others and making new friends, and was apparently well-heeled in the saucy arts, since it was reported that the flirty miss had a new boyfriend every week. While I wasn’t exactly proud that my little Lady was shaking it up for the Tramps on the playground, I was delighted when she was promoted to the position of “greeter” at the center, which is a dog who is assigned to play with a new dog in the doggy day care pack to get them adjusted and make their transition easier. She was even asked to participate in a marketing video for the day care center in which, according to her report card,“Maeby stole the show with her playtime skills.”
I mean, really. That one is still up on our refrigerator.
So, honestly, I was a little surprised when day after day, week after week, I would pick Maeby up from day care, get her report card and glance at the chalkboard of honor that stands at the entrance to the center, only to see that the Dog of the Day—the highest honor of distinction that any dog could receive—was proclaimed to be Blackjack.
Last week it had been Mossimo.
The week before it had been Sammie.
The week before that, Ziggy.
The previous week, it went to Hercules Wu, whose parents had once taken our leash because theirs looked similar and then returned it a week later with HERCULES WU written across the back side of it in black permanent marker, along with Hercules Wu’s phone number.
You know, I thought to myself as I drove home with Maeby fast asleep in the back of the car, I don’t know what’s going on here, but something’s got to give. Look at her, so busy greeting and teasing all the boys on the playground that she falls asleep the minute she gets in the car! My dog is a hardworking hussy, pouring her heart out, giving her all, and what does she get in return? A nice report card. A scratch on the ears. That’s not enough, I said to myself; that is not enough for my dog.
“I hate to break it to you,”my husband said that night at dinner after I had voiced my Dog of the Day concerns.“But I highly doubt Maeby is upset about not being The Chosen One. She is far more concerned at the moment with licking the floor where you dropped a hot dog yesterday.”
“That’s not the point,” I argued. “Do you not remember that Maeby was the one who stole the show with her playtime skills? Because if you’ve forgotten, I can show it to you.”
My husband sighed.“She doesn’t know how to spell ‘Maeby,’ ” he offered. “Just point to the sign the next time you’re there and tell her she is the Dog of the Day.”
I was stunned. “If that’s how you prefer to handle a crisis—with deceit and trickery—then I don’t even want you in this house when I finally have to tell her she’s adopted,” I stuttered.
“Did you ever think,” he finally said, “that maybe those dogs got the distinction because they earned it? That maybe they just gave a little bit extra?” I gasped, not knowing what to say, but my mind began to race.Was it possible that the other dogs got better grades than Maeby? Could it be it true that other dogs contributed more, were harder working? How could that be? Maeby was a greeter, showing new dogs the way, making them feel at ease, helping them with the introduction to the group. That was real dogitarian work.What could the other dogs possibly be doing that could outshine that? Was Sammie brokering peace accords between Indian and Pakistani dogs? Was Mossimo peacefully fighting for the rights of dogs not to be forced into wearing hats and sweaters if they chose not to? Was Blackjack removing land mines, making the playground safe for everyone else? Had Ziggy finally talked Mr.Winkle into retiring? And what was Hercules Wu doing, besides stealing leashes? Was Hercules Wu a greeter? I really doubted it. Was Hercules Wu asked to be in the video? Probably not. Did Hercules Wu steal the show with his playtime skills and his appropriated leash?
Not very likely.
So I decided to do the only thing I really could do, and that was ask. I wanted to know what the Dog of the Day criteria were, what the mitigating factors might be, and then tackle the problem from that angle. But when I went to pick Maeby up after her next day at the center, I was not at all prepared for what I saw.
It was an empty chalkboard.
No one had been proclaimed Dog of the Day yet. This was my—and Maeby’s—chance. I stood still for a moment, listening. I heard nothing, not the rustling of collars, or leashes, or barking.Everyone, it seemed, was outside on the playground.
Maeby stole the show with her playtime skills.
Maeby stole the show with her playtime skills.
I took a step forward toward the front desk.
Maeby stole the show with her playtime skills.
Where they keep the chalk.
I took another step. And another. And another,my steps becoming quicker as I neared the desk. And the chalk. And my dog’s redemption.
And I saw it, a pink, slim tube of chalk, right there next to the computer keyboard. I was a step or two away from reaching over and grabbing it, because it was lying right there in the open, when I stopped.
Maeby stole the show with her playtime skills.
It was true. But how would Maeby feel if she knew that I stole the title of Dog of the Day and gave it to her,with her name written all over the back of it in pink chalk? I didn’t take another step.
Instead, I waited there for Mandie, the center’s owner, to bring Maeby out with Hercules Wu’s leash, and then told her that Maeby would be coming in an extra day that week because I had finally made an appointment to have my terminally ill 19-year old cat, Barnaby, cross over into the Kitty Light. It would be better if she spent that day shaking her milkshake on the playground at the likes of Ziggy and Blackjack, I told Mandie, than to be at our house when something sad was going to happen.
And I was right—the day we sent Barnaby to a hereafter stocked with an all-you-can-eat buffet of Fancy Feast and Pounce was awfully sad, beginning with the moment we brought Maeby over to his cat bed to say good-bye to him. She nudged him gently, licked his head, sat and waited for Hercules Wu’s leash, and was off to day care.
When I went to pick her up later that day, I couldn’t wait to see her. Although Barnaby’s passing couldn’t have gone any smoother due to our sympathetic and patient vet, it was as emotional as any experience of letting a friend of 19 years go could be. My eyes were red and puffy when I arrived, and as I walked into the lobby, Maeby bounded in through the side door.
“What a good girl!” I said as I scratched behind her ears and she jumped and hopped around with excitement.“I’m so happy to see you!”
“That’s not all you should see,”Mandie said, and I looked up to see her pointing away from us.
I looked in that direction, and that’s when I saw it. The chalkboard, on which Maeby’s name was written in pink, swirly letters.
“You’re Dog of the Day?” I asked as she jumped and I jumped a little too, as I petted her head and she panted with excitement. “That’s wonderful! Look at that! Maeby is Dog of the Day!”
Mandie handed over the leash and we were just about to walk out the door when I realized I still had a question and was dying for the answer.
“So,” I said before I pushed the door all the way open. “How do you know who’s Dog of the Day? In what way do you judge who deserves it?”
Mandie laughed.“It’s not who ‘deserves’ it,” she explained as she smiled. “It’s who needs it the most.” “Oh,” I said as I smiled back. “I think that’s a great way. That’s really nice. Thank you.”
“Don’t forget her report card,”Mandie said as she pulled it from her pocket. “Maeby has two new boyfriends on the playground, you know.”
“Dog of the Day” © 2007 by Laurie Notaro, included in Howl: A Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit, October 2007 from Crown Publishers. Used with permission.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Ah, Summertime! Nothing like it for this teacher. No students to teach, papers to grade or meetings to attend. My family’s at Six Flags, and since I get motion sickness, I wrote myself a note, excusing me from it. The handwriting was pretty good, so it worked. I’m not thinking of vacuuming the rug or emptying the dishwasher or starting that last load of whites. Nope. Just don’t feel like it.
I decided to reread The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Don’t laugh. I’m on a great chapter, “Huck and the Judge— Superstition.” Judge Thatcher beats Huckleberry for cutting school. Now there’s an idea, Mr. Twain.
Jim had a hair-ball as big as your fist, which had been took out of the fourth stomach of an ox, and he used to do magic with it. He said there was a spirit inside of it, and it knowed everything.
This room does need a good once-over. Three Golden Retrievers leave hair everywhere. Jessie stretches out behind my chair,Max on the rug and Angie on the sofa with her head hanging off the end.
On the hardwood floor, a rolling ball of golden fur hypnotizes me. Around and around it goes, clockwise like the ceiling fan, on some invisible track. It glides through the piano legs, under the sofa, out the back, around the floor, through the piano legs and under the sofa again. I place my novel next to my coffee, get up, and grab the rolling fur.Max raises an eyebrow; I raise mine and smile back.
I sit down and put the hair ball in the empty candy dish on the table so I’ll remember to throw it away later. I open my book. Jessie lets out a sleepy sigh.
Another hair ball encircles the floor, brazenly challenging my reading time. I look inside the candy dish (still full). I really should vacuum and get rid of these distractions. Well, maybe just finish chapter four.
Jim got out his hair-ball, and said something over it, and then he held it up and dropped it on the floor. Jim got down on his knees and put his ear against it and listened.
I get up, take the first hair ball and set it free on the floor.Max looks to Jessie for answers, but she’s not helping. In a few seconds, the hair ball begins its orbit again, falling back into the exact track as before: through the piano legs, under the sofa, out the back. Angie watches it, too. The second hair ball fuses with the first, forming one ball the size of my fist.
Here’s what I do—now, don’t laugh. I sit on the floor in the middle of the orbit. And I wait. Jessie tilts her head and questions my behavior with a half-wag. My eyes narrow, fixed on the hair ball: around and through andunder aroundand through aroundunder—until I start to feel dizzy. Too much coffee? Maybe, but it’s something more. The next time it tumbles around, I throw my whole body on it, not feeling the hair ball under me, but knowing it’s trapped.What to do?
Warm, moist air licks the back of my neck. I turn. Three dogs stand above me and bow, staring down, lips drooping away from their teeth, gums exposed. We all pause till I see drool and close my eyes. Angie shakes her head, tags jingling, breaking the spell.
I take the hair ball to the chair for a better look. It consists mostly of long, golden strands of fur, winding on itself; in the center, a red thread knotted in places. Trapped inside, there’s some human hair, I think. Yep, but I won’t tell you what kind. Suddenly, Max starts to bark, then Jessie starts, her fur raised, and even Angie howls. Their racket rings through the empty house.
I take in the room in a kind of panic. Scan windows and doors. You know, robbers and all. But there aren’t robbers. Maybe a sudden storm? Mailman? Earthquake? In Dallas? No. Nothing. And then, just as suddenly, the dogs stop barking and lie down.
So I walk around, turn on some more lights—don’t ask me why. I just do. I sit in the chair, pick up my book, but can’t read. Not now. I look around.
I see dog nose prints on French doors, Legos on the rug, a pile of clothes in a basket, dust on the family photos and another hair ball on the floor. But I try to read.
So the hair-ball talked to Jim, and Jim told it to me. He says: You gwyne to have considable trouble in yo’ life, en considable joy. Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to get sick; but every time you’s gwyne to git well agin.
But you is all right.
They’ll be home soon, hungry and tired, ready to tell me all about Six Flags. Let me get that vacuum. Chapter five can wait. It is, after all, summertime.
Culture: Stories & Lit
It’s not unusual these days for perfect matches — between humans and humans, animals and humans, even animals and animals — to be made online. Typically (in the Match.com department, at least), the humans actually meet before agreeing to make a full-time/ lifelong commitment. So is it crazy to adopt a dog you’ve never actually met face-to-face?
I did exactly that. I adopted my dog Chloe before I even met her. Crazy? Read on…
Many of you may be familiar with my previous Bark series (and book): “Rex and the City.” In this series, I chronicled my experiences trying to raise an unruly — but loveable — shelter dog (Wallace) in a 300-square-foot apartment in New York City with an unruly — but loveable — boyfriend. In 2002, our relationship ended and Wallace died tragically. All within a few hours. I officially left Ted on the morning of November 23; that evening, Wallace was killed in an auto accident. (See “Rex: The Story Ends,” Jan/Feb ’09).
After that, I cried every day for two years. I stopped writing about dogs for two years as well. In fact, I tried not to think about dogs at all, because thinking about dogs made me miss Wallace, which made me feel guilty and sad.
I knew that one day, when I was ready, I would adopt another dog, but “readiness” is such a relative and fickle thing. Sometimes I would log onto Petfinder.com and type “Spaniel” into the search engine just to see who was out there waiting for a home. But none of those 800+ Spaniels ever felt “right.”
I wrote about my new-dog quest in the aforementioned essay, but in a nutshell: after a two-year search, I finally came across a French Spaniel mix on Petfinder. Her name was Buffy, and she was being fostered by an affiliate of an English Setter rescue group in Michigan. She was listed as one year old, sweet and good with other dogs.
What struck me was Buffy’s photograph. She was looking straight at the camera, smiling, rushing forward as if she couldn’t wait to give the taker of the photo a kiss. Finish what you’re doing so that I can love you up! she seemed to be saying. Her big white tail wagged behind her in a blur.
Pete Townshend once wrote, in his song “Now and Then”: Now and then you see a soul and you fall in love/You can’t do a thing about it. That’s how I felt when I saw Buffy’s photograph. In that instant, my whole body began to tingle with certainty. I knew in my heart that I had found my dog.
My mind, however, disagreed. I had an incredibly wily and cantankerous mind back then, one that constantly tried to talk me out of doing anything fun. I called her “Hulga.” Hulga said, Buffy’s in Michigan, and you’re in NYC, and most rescue groups won’t adopt out beyond certain regions. You know how strict they can be. Why even bother?
It turned out that the adoption coordinator who answered the telephone — I’ll call her Amy — had heard of me. She’d been a fan of Bark and my column for years. The ease with which we spoke — and the camaraderie that quickly developed — was encouraging.
Amy said that Buffy was very sweet and loving. Her favorite things to do were to chase cats, eat cat poop and run through corn fields. I loved this latter image — a free-andeasy bird dog, galloping through tall green rows of corn, dodging down this row or that, occasionally springing into the air to sight and orient herself. It suggested pure joy and freedom. In NYC, our corn comes from corner delis — those tiny pickled cobs you find at salad bars.
“You should know,” Amy said, “that Buffy does have problems. She barks a lot and whines and paces and chews.”
I knew these to be signs of anxiety — most likely, stress caused by all the shuttling from shelters to foster homes. I also knew some people would label this as “problem behavior” and refuse to take the dog. But I’d been through this anxiety phase with Wallace, and we had worked it out.
“What’s Buffy’s history?”
Amy said Buffy was found wandering on a college campus. She was brought into a local kill shelter, where a woman named Kat discovered her. Kat was a cat person, who visited the shelter daily to rescue Abyssinians for her breed-specific group. When Kat saw cute, friendly Buffy, she contacted a local English Setter rescue group, and within a few days, Buffy’s profile was online. “It’s such a coincidence you called today,” Amy said. “We literally just posted her.”
But I was starting to think there is no such thing as coincidence.
“I have a good feeling about Buffy,” I said. “I believe this was meant to be.”
“Normally we don’t adopt out of state,” Amy said.
See? Hulga said in my mind. I was right. “But we may be able to make an exception,” Amy added. “I’ll just have to consult the board.”
Oh, no. The Board. Six months earlier, I’d tried to adopt an English Setter puppy from a strict rescue group in Pennsylvania. Their rejection left me traumatized for weeks. “Buffy’s very destructive and high-strung,” Amy said. “She’s hard to manage. You should think about it for a few days, while I consult my colleagues to see if they’d be willing to relinquish a dog to a strange New Yorker.”
So, I thought. I probably thought too much. Hulga had a field day. I asked myself: What am I doing, taking on another “problem dog”? I’d spent six years with a problem dog, and sometimes, quite honestly, it wasn’t fun. I’d had to contend with dog fights, dog bites and thousands of dollars worth of damage. Minor stuff, I told myself. In comparison to all that dog joy and dog love I received.
Still, Hulga said. Why not get an easy dog? One who’s already trained and well adjusted? Why are you choosing another difficult relationship? I’d just divorced my difficult relationship. Was I only comfortable when life was hard?
But this is a dog we’re talking about, not one of those men things. I reminded myself.
A dog you haven’t even met, Hulga said. Who sounds dysfunctional.
What if there was more to this dog — more “problems” — that Amy wasn’t elaborating upon? What if it turned out that I couldn’t manage Buffy’s problems alone? I was a single woman, and — at the time — bitter. I planned to remain single for the rest of my life. Would a so-called “easy” dog be easy enough for a singleton in NYC? And what had Amy meant when she called me a strange New Yorker?
The questions were endless. I drove myself crazy. Or rather, Hulga drove me crazy. This is what happens when we think too much — an epic internal battle of mind and heart, logic and intuition (with an unhealthy dose of Hulga thrown in).
Finally, I visited Riverside Park to watch the sun set beyond the Hudson River. The Hudson has always given me perspective; it is the kind of vast, forgiving river that helps one make choices. As I stood there, a woman walked past with a giant Mastiff who loped along with a goofy grace. The dog looked so happy to be outside in the park with his friend. And so did she. In that instant, I knew Buffy was truly meant to be my dog. I decided once and for all to follow my heart.
When I called Amy, I felt fizzy with excitement. Amy said I could have Buffy “whenever I wanted.”
“So the board has approved?”
“What? Oh, yes,” Amy said distractedly. Something seemed off. But I’ll have to save that story for another day. It took four weeks for me to actually get Buffy (another long story involving Buffy actually being adopted — and returned — to five other people in the interim). But soon, I had secured an “arrival date” for Buffy. She would be accompanying a volunteer on a plane to NYC.
I had ten days to prepare.
Rehabilitating Wallace had taught me a lot about dogs. Writing for a dog magazine had too. I now knew what kind of training worked best (clicker, positive reinforcement), what type of diet was healthiest (raw, organic) and which veterinary treatments worked best. I’m not saying I’m an expert on dogs, but at least I wasn’t as clueless as I’d been when I adopted Wallace. I felt confident. I was going to work with Buffy’s anxieties, restore her confidence, provide her with consistent and loving guidance, and gently alter her behaviors.
First, I cleared my calendar, rescheduling any appointments that would take me out of the apartment. I wanted to stay with the dog 24/7 for a solid three weeks. Next I researched how to treat anxiety using holistic methods. I stocked up on flower essences, aromatherapy oils, herbal supplements. I bought marrow bones (an essential ingredient if your anxiety-plagued dog is a chewer) and two pounds of raw chicken to help strengthen her immune system. I also stocked up on music. Yes, music.
As Buffy’s arrival date drew nearer, I purchased other essentials: A vintage-floral-patterned “Cozy” bed; a pretty new leash-and-collar set. A soft fleece blanket with which to cover the sofa, which I knew would be covered in dog hair within three hours of the dog’s arrival. All of the above were pink in honor of my new girlie-dog. I bought doggie pawwipes for rainy days, Musher’s Secret for snowy days, hair brushes (pink!), toys, treats (exotic NYC treats like dried kippers and ostrich skin), even a Halloween costume (more on that later).
Next, I posted on ManhattanDogChat, announcing the arrival of a new pup in the neighborhood who’d be looking for play-dates.
Already, Buffy was a true New Yorker, I thought. Hip grosgrain collars, lavender shampoo and dates.
Soon the appointed day came. I arrived at the airport early, my purse loaded with Bach Rescue Remedy and my pockets stuffed with treats. I must say I was nervous. It was like a blind date: Will she like me? Will she think I’m unattractive? Or weird? What if we don’t get along?
Then I saw a woman wheeling a large dog crate toward me. Inside was what looked like a Border Collie mix, panting and pacing and whining. Buffy? This crate had my name on it, printed in large black letters. Beneath my name was a sticker that read: CAUTION LIVE ANIMAL. The dog whined shrilly. For a moment I was dumbfounded — I had myself a new live animal. One who might not be any part Spaniel. Was this going to be another “Rex and the City” ordeal, in which I’d spend months feeling overwhelmed?
I reminded myself that I had followed my heart, and that the heart is always right. So I unlatched the crate.
News: Guest Posts
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Culture: Stories & Lit
When I adopted my dog Chloe sight unseen from a shelter in Michigan via Petfinder.com, she came with the name of Buffy. And she certainly looked like a Buffy in her profile photos—sweet and soft and eager to play. A dog who would buffer your emotions, and remind you to stay soft and gentle and happy yourself.
But somehow I could not see myself—a then-edgy New Yorker—calling out the name “Buffy” in Riverside Park. I mean, it’s a cute name, but for some reason I wanted to avoid being interpreted as “cute.” I’m too darn serious, thank you very much. And I’ve never seen that Vampire Slayer show—I don’t even own a television set. So the name Buffy would be misleading on many levels.
So that was Silly Reason #1. What was most important to me, however, was that Buffy’s new name be a reflection of her—her looks, her personality, her distinctions. I wanted a name that would summarize all that was unique about her dogness. Thus, I decided I would not give her a new name until I met her face-to-face.
I wrote about meeting Buffy/Chloe in my previous installment of “The Chloe Chronicles” (“Home, Again,” Sept/Oct 2011). In short, she was a 55-pound Spaniel mix, mostly white with brown markings, with a big bushy tail and a classic Spaniel face. The white stripe down the center of her head and snout was perfectly straight and proportional, as if hand-drawn by da Vinci himself. And personality-wise, she was totally a Buffy. Sweet and soft and friendly—just as her pictures had suggested. She was also quite anxious at the beginning, so I knew I wouldn’t see the real her right away.
I remember when I first brought the dog to our local, marvelous two-acre dog run in Fort Tryon Park), the first thing everyone asked me was, of course, her name. They all though it rather comic that I hadn’t chosen one yet. So I explained that her name had been Buffy but that I was going to change it once I got a sense of what her name should be. “Plus,” I said. “I’m not even sure Buffy was the name given by her first owner. ‘Buffy’ could have been the name the French Spaniel rescue group gave her when they pulled her from the shelter.”
In many spiritual traditions and creation myths, each human being has what is called a True Name. It’s the name of our soul, really, our Original Self, the part of us that lives on and on through many lifetimes. For those who don’t believe in the idea of reincarnation, our True Name is the name St. Peter has in his register at the Pearly Gates. In any case, it is said to be a very powerful experience to be called by your True Name, because the name brings forth everything that is, well, true in yourself: goodness, compassion, generosity, loving kindness … that sort of thing.
All of this is to say: I wanted to give my new dog a name that would call forth her Original Self. The dog she had been before she was abused and neglected and abandoned. But try explaining that in a New York City dog run.
“Well, what are you going to call her in the meantime?” one of my new dog-park friends, Chantay, asked. She was a tall, gorgeous, African-American woman with an historic brownstone townhouse in Morningside Heights and an excellent sense of humor. Her dog—a Weimaraner mix—was named Boo. “It’s easy,” she said. “One syllable, no mistakes.” She said that some day, she wanted to have three dogs so that she could name them One, Two and Three.
“I’m not sure what to call her,” I said. We stood and watched the erstwhile Buffy enjoy the dog run: happily romping, nipping and rolling in the dirt with her new dog friends. There was a Ridgeback mix named Lexie (who was Queen of the run); a French Bulldog named Myrtle; and a tiny, timid Terrier mix named Bird. “How did you come up with that one?” I asked Birdie’s human companion, Jenn, who was associate director of a prominent animal shelter in Queens. “I don’t know,” she said. “She just looks like a Birdie. Small and cute and sweet. Buffy does look like a Buffy, you know.” “You’re right,” I said. “I guess I shouldn’t rule it out entirely.”
For a few days, my new friends and I watched my dog run and play, hoping that her True Name might reveal itself. She was sweet and submissive—always the first dog to give up the toy in a game of tug; always rolling onto her back into a “love-me-I’m-submissive” pose when a new dog approached. “So she’s a lover, not a fighter,” Chantay said. As she said this, Lexie zipped past us, ready to take down an old Bassett Hound (Beatrice) who was lumbering through the entrance gate with her lumbering human. I loved to watch Lexie run; I loved to watch how much she enjoyed being the run’s top dog. She was never mean about it. Instead, she seemed rather exuberant, like a bride ready to take down her wedding party if they dared do anything to ruin her Big Day. And every day in a dog’s world is a Big Day. We joked that Lexie’s name should be Bridezilla.
But back to Buffy. As we watched her play at the dog runs, we shouted out various names to see if she would respond. We experimented with human names (Mavis, Blanche), food names (Carrot, Ginger, Pepper), Buddhist names (Tara, Maitri, Pema), literary names (Rumi, Edith, Colette) and rock-and-roll names (Townshend, Daltrey, Percy, Bron-Yr-Aur). But Buffy did not respond to any of the above. She romped and played and rolled in the dust, oblivious to the odd string of words we humans were shouting to her.
By Friday the names had gotten sillier because, as it turns out, Friday night was happy hour (Yappy Hour) at George’s Dog Run, and people brought beer and wine. Buffy was called, in no particular order: “Dogtella Versace,” “Compassionate Conservatism,” “You Gotta Problem With That?” and “The Artist Formerly Known as Buffy.” Chantay concluded we should call her “You” as in “Hey, You!” But that seemed too impersonal and even a bit rude.
I finally decided I should limit my dog-name choices to French names, in honor of Chloe being part French Spaniel. And in honor of my own part-French heritage. For some reason, I liked old-lady names, and came up with several: Babette, Claudine, Delphine and Chlothilde.
Actually, my new dog reminded me in some ways of an elderly French lady—une grande dame. The soft, slightly crimped hair on her ears took on a reddish color in the sun (all the grande dames in Paris dye their hair red). She had lively amber eyes. She was a pretty dog—very sweet-looking and feminine. She liked to stand on her head and wag her rump and her tail in the air in a manner that had something of the burlesque about it. So that was it: my dog would be named after a retired Folies Bergère showgirl. Thus, she became Chlothilde.
And how, you may ask, does that name call forth her Original Self? It turned out that my dog liked, above all, to entertain people. She liked to make people laugh. When someone came to our apartment, she’d run to the door with a shoe in her mouth, or a toy, or half of a chewed-up stuffed animal; present the gift to the visitor; then stand on her head. That’s a showgirl. I announced to my friends at the run that, after careful consideration, I had ruled out “Compassionate Conservatism” in favor of Chlothilde.
The only problem was, no one could pronounce or spell Chlothilde, and the explanation I had to give people who inquired after this odd name took a lot of time. And we New Yorkers are all about saving time. Could I live with a Chlothilde, whose name took 10 minutes to explain?
When I took Chlothilde to her first vet appointment in NYC, the assistant came out into the waiting area with a clipboard in her hand and a confused look on her face. I knew she had to be looking for me. “Ch…?” she said, reading the file on the clipboard. “Chlo… Cloth?… Cloth-ilde?” She pronounced the latter like Rothschild. I wondered how long it took the French nobility to get the pronunciation and spelling of that name down. Centuries?
Then again, I have a few name issues myself. My real name is Eileen. Don’t ever call me that—I won’t answer you. I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times I have had to tell people how to spell my name and/or having to correct customer service representatives on the telephone. “No, not Irene, Eileen.”
“Aileen, did you say?”
“Never mind. Just put down ‘Lee.’”
I have probably wasted the equivalent of seven weeks of my life trying to convey my own name. I didn’t want to spend the next 10 years going through the same thing with my little Chlothilde.
Thus, she became Chloe. And she really did become a Chloe. Who loves the snow-ee. On walks we go-ee. Her dog-boyfriend’s name is Rainbow-ee. Frenchifying her name, I officially dubbed her Chloe du Bois. Chloe of the Forest. And a fine white wine.
Some say it’s best not to change a shelter dog’s name. I get that. Many shelter dogs are already confused and frightened and traumatized. So a new name—a new foreign word—could actually add to the confusion. Dogs need consistency and a sense of safety, and keeping their name is one way to do that, a constant in the midst of many changes.
Others say that if you do change an adopted dog’s name, the new name should rhyme. That had left me with Muffy, Scruffy, Toughy, and (Chantay’s suggestion): “I’ve Had Enough-y.” Nah.
In Native American and many other spiritual traditions, a person is given a new name at certain milestone passages in life—the transition from childhood to adulthood, for example. Or when a major feat has been accomplished. I myself have been given quite a few spiritual names in the past two decades, ranging from Sangye Lhamo (Buddha Goddess) to Mirabai (Goddess of Poetry and Song). A Peruvian shaman even once told me my True Name, which I cannot reveal. These names are bestowed by teachers—by masters—and they usually involve elaborate initiation ceremonies. They are meant to not only name what we are, but what we aspire to be. (Eventually, I came to realize that they are actually one and the same, but that’s another story.)
Anyway, I told myself that by giving Chloe a new name, I was somehow initiating her into a new life with me. I hoped it would be a better life for my shelter dog—a new life full of romps through the forests (for her), and fine white wine (for me). I’ve taken her to France twice, by the way, and everyone there knows how to spell and pronounce Chlothilde.
I don’t have room in this column—or in this lifetime—to share with you all the nicknames I have now given Chloe. We all have zillions of nicknames for our dogs, after all. But when Chloe is acting cute, I call her Cute-tilde. When she is looking plump, I call her Fatty-tilde. When she is tired, she is Sleepy-tilde. You get the drill.
Sometimes I even accidentally call her Wallace—the name of my former dog. Wallace was the subject of the “Rex and the City” columns which used to appear here on the pages of Bark. For the past few months, I have been working on Volume II of Rex and the City. When I write, I go very deep into my “writing zone”—into the world of my book. Thus, when I take breaks, I often remain in that writing zone, and am not quite in the present moment. I’ll be staring out the window while waiting for a fresh pot of coffee to finish brewing, and this Spaniel mix will walk into the room and I’ll say: “Hi, Wallace,” before realizing it’s Chloe. She doesn’t seem to mind. A greeting by any other name is still a greeting. Plus, we know it’s nothing personal. My father often calls me by my sister’s name.
Anything said in kindness and joy is perceived as such.
Joy. Last summer, Chloe and I were out by the pool, tending to a rather unruly Provençal-type garden in upstate New York that was teeming with coneflowers and black-eyed Susans and giant hibiscus. They swayed in the heat, as if dancing in woozy love-bliss to a slow song. Chloe snuffled through the flower beds looking for rabbits (“Chloe, no!”), then took a dip in the nearby pool (“Who’s a Swimmy-tilde?”) and then barked at some deer who were hanging out near the pear trees, waiting for fruit to drop (“Who’s a fierce guard dog? Who’s a Fiercy-tilde?”). She looked so happy, and I felt so blessed to be living in such a place. (“Who’s a Happy-Tilde?) Then we walked back toward the house, through a small orchard with views of the Hudson River. Chloe trotted ahead of me with her tail held proud and high, as if I never would have found my own house without her guidance. (Who’s a Smarty-tilde?”). I had called her by five different names in a matter of minutes.
I decided, in the spirit of the moment, to call Chloe “Buffy” to see how she reacted. She was running ahead of me at the time, and when I called out this name, she turned and looked at me with a big dog smile on her face. She remembers! I thought. And she’s smiling! Maybe her life as a Buffy hadn’t been so horrible after all.
The bottom line is: dogs just like being called. Period.
And perhaps no dog—or anyone—can truly have only one name. Chloe is a Chloe and a Buffy and a Goofy and a Sweetie-tilde. She has all of these qualities, each of them expressed at different times. It’s the same with humans. We express different emotions, thoughts and feelings every moment of every day. No one person remains the same; nothing remains fixed. So, perhaps instead of one True Name, we have many.
Recently, I added yet another nickname to Chloe’s list: Buffy. Buffy the Stuffed Animal Slayer. Be afraid, toys. Be very afraid.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I didn’t go on a pilgrimage through the holy lands of Israel and Palestine expecting to return as an international dognapper. Yet in the desert east of Bethlehem, just outside of a fourth-century monastery, that’s exactly what I was about to become.
I’d been watching the local boys for 15 minutes. There were three of them, about nine years old, give or take a year. Dressed in dirty jeans and t-shirts, they hung around the small parking lot near the monastery waiting for tourists. They’d approach the foreigners, the tallest boy carrying a puppy, soliciting. What, I couldn’t tell. Money? Candy? Attention? They’d look at the visitors’ cameras, gesture toward their cell phones and talk animatedly in Arabic. No one understood them.
Once the tourists continued on toward the monastery, the tallest boy would toss the puppy to the ground. I’d watched the creature hit the pavement twice. Both times, it yelped, then lay limp. In the week I’d been on the pilgrimage, I’d seen a fair amount of poverty in the West Bank. But I hadn’t seen abuse. And while I may have been misinterpreting the exact situation with the dog, I was having a hard time witnessing it.
I’ve been fond of dogs since I was a kid. As a 34-year-old, I had two of my own back home in Colorado. Or had, up until three months earlier when my divorce was final. My ex and I had decided that both dogs—yellow Labs—would be better off living with him. As a travel writer, I am out of town more often than not. But I missed them terribly. I didn’t want to make another regrettable dog decision, which is how I came to be plotting at a monastery in the Middle East.
I continued to watch. The puppy lay in the sand beside the parking lot, unmoving. It looked too small to have been separated from its mother. I imagined that it was hungry, thirsty, injured. I waited for the boys to become distracted. When a car pulled up and the Arab man inside called them over, I had my chance. I moved quickly, scooped her up and hid her in my sweater. No one seemed to notice. I ducked into the van, which was waiting curbside to take my group to our hotel for the evening. I realized that I now had a new problem: how was I going to explain this to the others?
I didn’t have much time to figure it out. Through the window, I could see that the members of my group—a team of academics—were starting to trickle out of the monastery. This 12-day pilgrimage was part of their work with a nonprofit called the Abraham Path Initiative. They wouldn’t understand. In fact, I was pretty certain they’d find my actions ridiculous, if not insulting, in an “ugly American” sort of way.
Hidden under my sweater, the puppy lay listless in my arms. It was possible no one would notice her, had it not been for the smell. Even after a full day on the trail, I was nowhere near that musty. I watched each of them crawl into the van, catch a whiff, and raise an eyebrow or scrunch a nose. Yunus, executive director of the Abraham Path Initiative and the unofficial head of the group, slid into the seat beside me. He eyed the sweater on my lap. “You know you can’t keep it,” he said.
I kept quiet. Yunus and his ilk were anthropologists and sociologists, trained in international conflict negotiation in situations far more dire than this. I was afraid they would convince me to put her back. But if I didn’t speak, there could be no persuading.
He tried again. “Just what exactly are you planning to do with it?”
I looked at him. Then I looked down at my sweater. I pulled it back a bit so her head was exposed, and tears welled up in my eyes. “It’s a she,” I said, keeping my head lowered.
Yunus tried again, more gently. “Dogs aren’t pets, they’re work animals. It’s a hard life in Palestine—for people and for dogs. But her life is here.”
His logic reminded me of the discussions my ex and I had about where the dogs would live once we divorced. I’d done the right thing, the rational thing, in giving them up. But this time, there was more at stake.
I lifted my chin and stared straight ahead. “Twendi,” I said to the driver. “Let’s go.”
He started the ignition. Yunus exhaled and sat back in his seat. Conversation resumed in hushed tones. I felt like everyone was passing judgment on me, the youngest in the group, the one with the least experience traveling in the Middle East. But I didn’t care. The puppy barely moved in the 20 minutes it took to get to our hotel. In that time, I decided her name would be Amira, which means princess in Arabic.
If the elderly woman running the Arab Women’s Union Guesthouse was surprised that I walked in cradling a puppy, she didn’t show it. Nor did she object when I went to the kitchen to get milk, bread and a small bowl.
Inside my room, I set Amira down in front of the food. She ate slowly, as if she really didn’t have the energy. I wondered how long it had been since she’d eaten. She had sable fur, the color of the sandy desert she came from, highlighted with swatches of white on her muzzle, chest and feet. Her brown eyes were an unusual almond shape that made them appear almost human. She would have been beautiful had she not been so filthy.
I carried her into the bathroom and set her in the sink. I rinsed her fur, lathered her with my shampoo and rinsed her again. I remembered how I had washed Cody Bear in the bathtub at least once a week when he was a pup. Part of it was my new-dog-mom obsession with keeping him clean. Part of it was his penchant for jumping into any body of water he saw, including the tub. He loved the water. Amira didn’t. She squirmed under the spray from the faucet, but was too weak to put up a struggle.
As I toweled her off, she fell asleep. Her breathing was labored. She didn’t stir when I searched out and removed three ticks. When I was done, I joined the others for dinner. Yunus spoke first. “There is a shelter in Jerusalem,” he offered. I told the group that I didn’t know if she’d make it through the night. I couldn’t tell if their eyes were sympathetic or condescending.
Amira opened her eyes when I walked back into the room. Her ears perked when I reached for her. I took her off the bed and let her do her business. She walked to the now-empty food bowl and looked up at me. I hurried back to the kitchen and got her more bread and milk. She ate with considerably more gusto, and then set out to explore the room, sniffing under the bed, in my suitcase, around the trash can. We played tug of war with a sock on the Persian rug at the foot of the bed, and she yipped and pranced like a princess. I felt a surge of hope. When she started wagging her tail, I knew she was going to make it. And if she could make it, I could surely find a way to get her out of Palestine.
I opened my computer to do some sleuthing. In order to bring her back with me, she needed a health certificate from a vet and proof of rabies vaccination at least 30 days prior to her arrival in the U.S. That wouldn’t work. Maybe I could convince Cody Bear’s vet to forge papers, have them faxed to me, and pretend she had been traveling with me from the start. I checked pet regulations on the airline I‘d flown. No dogs allowed. Shoot. Maybe I could buy a ticket on another airline for the return flight. Or I could take her to a shelter in Jerusalem, pay for 30 days’ worth of care and vaccinations, and then have her sent to me on an airline that permitted pets once she was ready. I was so busy scheming that I almost forgot the biggest roadblock: three months earlier, I’d decided that I wasn’t home enough to have a dog.
I turned to look at Amira. She was asleep at the top of the bed, curled up against the pillow. She opened one almond eye at my movement, and I remembered Yunus’ words, her life is here. I knew then that I couldn’t take her with me. Not just for my own good, but also for hers. I thought about her in a shelter, in a crate on an airplane, in my 400-square-foot apartment in Boulder, and none of it seemed right. However much I struggled with the conditions I’d seen in Palestine on this trip, Americanizing Amira was not the answer. I got ready for bed with a heavy heart. I didn’t know how or where I’d leave her, just that I had to let her go.
Amira slept curled beside me on my pillow. I slept little. In the morning, I got my things ready for the day’s trek, and fashioned a pouch for Amira out of a headscarf, like those I’d seen mothers carry their babies in at the Whole Foods store in Boulder. At breakfast, the group looked at me like I was crazy. I did my best to ignore them. On the trail, Amira was a good sport about riding in the pouch. She mostly slept.
An hour into our walk, we came across a family of Bedouins, nomadic shepherds. Typical of Muslim hospitality, they offered us tea and bread, and we accepted. I let Amira out to stretch her legs. As I sipped the sweet black tea, I noticed how she blended in, wagging her tail among the goats and sheep. The Bedouins had their own sheep dog—tall and rangy, with light fur—tied to a tree. I imagined that’s what Amira would look like when she was grown. It was easy to picture a future for her here. She seemed to belong.
When we stood up to leave, I didn’t retrieve her. I thought perhaps she could earn her keep as a sheep dog. She had a better chance with the Bedouins than she did with the boys in the monastery parking lot.
The matriarch of the tribe motioned that I’d forgotten something. I shook my head no. I opened my arms to say, here, here is where she belongs. The old woman nodded. She reached down and touched Amira’s head. I turned so they wouldn't see me cry.
Amira didn’t follow me. And I didn’t turn back for one last look. Instead, I walked at a quicker pace than usual. I felt like I needed to keep my body moving so my mind could rest. The others gave me space, and I hiked alone for the better half of the morning.
Eventually, Yunus caught up with me. I don’t know what I expected—a scolding perhaps, or maybe an I told you so. But he matched my pace and didn’t say a word.
I spoke first. “I’m sorry,” I said.
Yunus slowed down a little. “You know, originally, no one agreed with what you did. But you improved conditions for that puppy, alleviated some bit of suffering.”
I snuck a glance at him. It was true. Amira was better off. I couldn’t guarantee her safety or her health, but I’d done what I could. I’d removed her from a harmful situation. In that moment, I realized how powerless I’d felt on the pilgrimage. Walking through an oppressed and impoverished society can do that to you. The magnitude of issues in the West Bank had made all of us feel that there was nothing one person could do to help.
I slowed my frantic pace and fell into step with Yunus. I’d done something. However small, it was something. “Ultimately, it’s not about what we can’t do. It’s about what we can,” he said.
I realized I was dogless once again. But it didn’t feel quite so terrible this time.
Culture: Stories & Lit
By the time I adopted Chloe in 2004, she had already had at least five homes. Or so I’m told. (One can never be 100 percent sure of a shelter dog’s history.) By the time I adopted Chloe, I myself had had at least five homes, too. More like 50; I can’t say for sure because I honestly haven’t counted. For years, I’ve been telling myself that I’ll count all the places I’ve lived once I’m actually/permanently settled. But that hasn’t happened yet.
The two years before I adopted Chloe were particularly unsettled (to put it mildly). I left my marriage, left my apartment and left my job all in a span of four weeks. Then our beloved dog Wallace (of Rex and the City fame) died suddenly, and I was so devastated that I left NYC altogether. When a dog leaves your life, it feels as though Pure Love has left as well. It can take eons to recover.
I began what we now affectionately call the “Odd-yssey.” I moved to a Buddhist retreat center in Colorado, where I stayed for six months. There, I felt dislodged, uprooted and confused. I missed my dog and I missed my life. The problem was, I no longer knew what “my life” was.
My teachers said that such chaos was good for me. Chaos, they said, is the place from which stillness is born. Chaos is the precursor to creation.
It took months to realize they were right because, frankly, chaos sucks. In the meantime, I spent a lot of time with the resident Buddhist dog, a soulful Heeler mix named Maitri (which is defined as the root of compassion manifested as friendship with oneself). Maitri’s presence also brought me to a state of inner peace and stillness. Without all that sucky chaos. But it made me miss having a dog even more.
Anyway, after I left Colorado, I moved back to New York, first to an artist’s colony in Woodstock for a few months, then to Montauk, where I spent the summer at another artist’s colony. I seemed, back then, to be following art and good weather. And this journey toward maitri. After Montauk, I decided I couldn’t spend another winter in Woodstock and returned, at last, to my beloved New York City. Only in NYC have I ever truly felt at home. And yet it drives me nuts. Perhaps that is why I love it.
Once I had unpacked the final box in my new, large faded-beauty of an apartment on the Very Upper West Side, I felt ready to “settle down” again. And settling down, in my opinion, required a dog.
In the previous installment of these “Chloe Chronicles,” I wrote about finding and adopting a new dog over the Internet—sight unseen—and how I discovered Chloe (then named “Buffy from Michigan”) on Petfinder, and what I did to prepare for her arrival at her new home.
Home is the operative word here. I wanted to give this formerly homeless dog a home. The previous installment of the “Chloe Chronicles” ended with meeting Buffy for the first time at the airport in Newark, N.J. A nice volunteer named Pam had escorted the dog from Michigan. I remember how widely I smiled when I saw Pam wheeling a large dog crate toward me across the bright, broad hallway of the airport; I remember how I cried when Pam unlatched the crate and out came a liver-and-white Spaniel (who was also a possible Border Collie mix) wearing a new pink collar. I cried because I was moved by the hugeness of the moment. When you are united with the dog you are meant to have, you know that your life is about to get much, much better.
I could tell right away my Buffy was a sweet and loving dog, but she was clearly stressed. I could see it in the way she paced and panted and shivered. She couldn’t focus; she seemed to want to get away—but what was “away” and where would that be for a dog who knew so little of airports and the human world? She spun in circles, locked in a state of anxiety, her nervous system in overdrive. Chaos.
Some might have looked at this dog, labeled her high-strung and left her at the shelter. According to Pam, at least four people back in Michigan had done so already. But my heart went out to Buffy. I knew her behavior was temporary. And manageable. I knew her only real “problem” was that she hadn’t been loved. No maitri.
I knelt down and tried to hug Buffy, but she wouldn’t stay still. She didn’t even really look at me, or wag her tail, or offer an affectionate kiss. I was a bit hurt by this (for what is better than a doggie kiss?), but I tried to see things from her perspective: in the past month, she had passed through perhaps dozens of human hands—some of them caring and concerned, others not so much. Pam told me that in the past week alone, Buffy had been adopted out twice, then returned unceremoniously to the foster parents, who didn’t really seem to like her; then adopted by me over the phone, like some mail-order bride; then taken to a vet (by a caring volunteer); then drugged, spayed and released with a raw pink scar on her belly. Then she was driven to Detroit, pushed into a crate, stowed in a cargo hold and shipped to … Newark.
Then she met me. And who was I to Buffy’s frightened eyes but another human who may or may not be nice? A human who had had 50 homes?
So, while I was sad that Buffy did not to kiss me on our first “date,” I understood that these things take time. Just like any relationship. In fact, I had already made a solemn vow. I promised Buffy that, with me, she would always be safe, always be fed, always be comfortable, and always be happy and loved. With loving-kindness.
I hadn’t made many vows in this life. I suppose I didn’t trust myself enough. There was my wedding vow, with its until-death-do-us-part component that had proved tough to uphold. Later, I took a Bodhisattva vow, which basically lasts beyond death and which I have, thankfully, managed to uphold. And now there was this vow to Buffy. In a way, I took it more seriously than my wedding vow. Perhaps because I had failed at the marriage and wanted to succeed at something related to the love and care of another being. I think my ex, Ted, having also experienced dog love, would have understood.
“Come on, Buffy,” I said, taking the leash from Pam. “Ready to go to your new home?”
I thanked Pam and we said our goodbyes. Outside, I waited as Buffy peed quickly on a small strip of grass, and then we headed toward my car. Soon the dog and I were on I-95, on our way to NYC. She rode in the back seat; the crate was in the way-back. I thought that, like most dogs, she might enjoy putting her head out the window. Instead, she cowered in the footwell, as though convinced this car ride was going to deliver her to yet another destination of doom. “It’s all right,” I told her. “You’re with me now. I’m going to give you a home. I’m going to give both of us a home.”
She cocked her ears (in that intelligent canine way), which suggested that she was at least considering the possibility of something good coming.
Soon we were crossing the George Washington Bridge. The sight of that bridge and the Manhattan skyline along the Hudson River always fills me with a sense of renewal and hope—New York, New York! The famous Frank Sinatra song came to mind, and I sang to Buffy. “We’re going to be a part of it, New York, New York.”
I felt a certain camaraderie with the dog: two transients coming together, both of us nervous, both of us reeling from the past. Both of us craving the same thing: safety; comfort; enough food to sustain us; and a warm, soft place to sleep. Personally, I also wanted fame and fortune and a great wardrobe. But when I narrowed it down to basic needs, to those cravings for survival, it came to me: I can do this.
Slowly, Buffy crawled onto the seat and looked out the window. Perhaps she smelled the river. Or perhaps she sensed my optimism and decided to join me.
We pulled onto Riverside Drive at 156th and found a parking space right in front of our building. I took this to be a good sign. Realtors call my neighborhood Audubon Terrace, but it is basically the northernmost slice of Harlem. A bafflingly beautiful neighborhood, it features elegant, turn-of-the-century apartment buildings; wide, curved streets; stately plane trees, and a cluster of historical Beaux-Arts buildings that house museums and cultural institutions. Yet there is an air of desolation and disappointment about the place: built in glory, destined for stardom, yet over and forgotten before it had even really begun.
The good news is that Audubon Terrace is a great dog neighborhood. In fact, I had researched the area and made sure it had dog perks before I chose that apartment. Riverside Park was within walking distance, and NYC’s largest and most wonderful dog run—George’s Run at Fort Tryon Park—was within driving distance.
I walked Buffy around the historic district to see if she needed to pee again. The limestone buildings of the museum complex took on a sepia tone at night, which always made me nostalgic for an earlier era, but in a good way. Plus, I had a dog now.
This particular route led us past an historic cemetery (where the famous painter of birds, John James Audubon, is buried and which offers plenty of sidewalk grass). Buffy did not pee on this grass as I thought she might. Instead, the first thing she did when I brought her into my apartment was pee on my bed. She looked nervous while she was doing it, and guilty and confused, but I didn’t punish her. I’m all about positive reinforcement. No raised voices, no violence, no “corrections.” Instead, I turned my body away (to show I wasn’t a threat) and waited until she hopped off the bed herself on her own time.
It’s not that I was thrilled that my new dog had peed on my thermapedic mattress. But it was replaceable. What was important was that my new dog felt safe and that we bond. (For the record: I clicker-trained her to relieve herself outside within 24 hours. So there.)
It was almost midnight at that point, and I was tired. I filled Buffy’s water dish and gave her a bit of food (which I had made earlier that day), but she ignored both. I understood; chaos kills the appetite.
That night, neither of us slept. Buffy paced and whined and panted—all signs of extreme anxiety—and I couldn’t get her to settle down. She rushed around the apartment, inspecting doors and windows as though looking for a way out. I tried to hug her, but she kept squirming out of my arms. I tried to distract her with treats and toys, but she couldn’t focus, couldn’t calm down.
Around 2 am, I started to get anxious myself. What had I done, adopting such an anxious, troubled dog? For the second time. Was I a masochist when it came to doggie relationships? I kept reminding myself that although Wallace had been troubled at first, Ted and I had helped him become a happy, loving, trusting dog through patience, training, conditioning and love. I reminded myself that Buffy’s anxious behavior was perfectly reasonable and logical given her history. All we needed was time.
At 4 am, I started feeling spacey from lack of sleep. Buffy was still pacing and panting, her nails clicking on the wooden floor, so I got up and put her in her crate. I’m not a fan of crates per se, but I needed some rest. Plus, there was a chance she might see the crate as her safe haven, as some dogs do. But Buffy became even more agitated, throwing her body against the crate and whining. It was almost 5 by then, so I figured I might as well get up and start a new day.
I got dressed and picked up the leash and the keys. I remembered that these two gestures, plus the sounds that accompanied them, were enough to send Wallace into a frenzy of excitement. But Buffy took no notice, because these gestures and sounds weren’t yet cues for her. This made me sad—no one had walked her.
“We’re going on our first walk!” I said in that singsong voice we always use with our dogs. “Our first morning together in New York City.” I clipped the leash onto her collar. “See? A new leash on life.”
We took the same route we had walked the night before—around the beautiful four-block museum complex. I would continue this for weeks to help Buffy orient herself and establish a routine. She turned out to be a very fine leash-walker, mostly because I had one of those 20-foot retractable leashes and she was slow.
She relieved herself near the cemetery and looked, well, relieved. I took this as another good sign. And—here’s the best part—when we approached our building, she turned and looked at me as if to say, This is the place, right?
“You smart dog!” I said. “What a smartie.”
When we got upstairs, Buffy went immediately to her water dish—she remembered—and lapped it up. That sound! It’s so sweet to us dog-lovers, isn’t it? A thirsty dog quenching her thirst. A basic need, simply met. Yet it felt profound.
I had a dog again. After all that Odd-ysseying.
My friend Melissa always says: “We get the dog we need. And dogs get the people they need.”
And just like that, Buffy and I found a home.
Culture: Stories & Lit
There is a tippy little table in the living room that terrifies the dog. On occasions too numerous to count, this table has lurched at him. He gives it a wide berth and a sideways eye. And when it goes for him, he tucks his tail and scrabbles for cover under the dinner table.
There is a malevolent lamp in the den. And a moment ago, there was a spoon on the edge of the counter that, at the brush of my sleeve, hit the floor with a clatter, sending the dog skittering across the hardwood.
“Dog, oh, dog,” I sigh as the woodchips settle. “What is it with you?”
He looks hurt. “I am a godfearing dog.”
At this I am taken aback. I know he’s a sensitive, even emotional, dog. He’s a Shepherd mix with a heart of gold and nerves of glass. But religious?
“Buddy, what do you mean?” I ask.
He sighs. “I’m an animist! An orthodox animist, really. I can’t believe you didn’t know this about me.” He drops his brown head on his paws and rolls his eyes. “This whole house is full of beings, beings with intentions. And most of the intentions are bad.”
Animist. I cast about for the tenets of that creed. Oh, yes: Everything has a spirit. Everything is part of the divine. That doesn’t sound so scary. Not like being a Scientologist. But I know nothing of orthodox animism.
“You wouldn’t,” the dog says. “You people were ruined by Socratic reasoning and the Scientific Revolution. And your gods were always fighting and killing each other off until you ended up with just one, who, frankly, is kind of vague. Really vague, actually. What does your god say about that vile little table? You look at it and all you see is a wood product. But you people used to be animists too, back when you were wild.”
The dog does this sometimes, harkens back to when humans did a lot more hunting and gathering. The subject tends to come up when I refuse to help him get the neighbor’s cat out of a tree. Or when I’m rubbing baking soda and peroxide into his skunked neck.
“You’ve all gone deaf,” he’ll growl. “Thunder once meant something to you people. It meant the sky was angry. You knew that when a tree fell on your hut, it didn’t just randomly tip over. It bashed in your hut because of something you did. And you used to eat cat.”
I hadn’t given his grumbling much thought, but now he has my interest. It is true that people who still hunt and gather for a living are usually animists. It seems to be the default philosophy of humans until we form permanent settlements and begin studying for the SATs. Why?
The dog flops onto his side. The spoon was a false alarm. Not like that foul little table.
“Same reason as me,” he says. His tongue unrolls to collect a corn flake on the floor. “The world is full of animals who want to eat you. Animals are all around you, waiting to pounce on you or sting you or poison you with their bite. Avalanches want to crush you. Lightning wants to burn you. Flash floods want to drown you. Anything that happens suddenly has a good chance of being bad. Maybe I sometimes run from a crackly paper bag, but it’s better to run from a paper bag 10 times than not to run the one time it’s actually a lion.”
I’m not going down that rabbit hole. I’ve tried talking sense to the dog about a number of scientific discoveries: People cannot just appear or vanish. A Jeep barreling down the street cannot stop in 18 inches. Lions live in Africa. My logic falls on velvety but deaf ears.
Besides, I still want to know how jumping away from a noisy spoon makes a person, or animal, religious. If it’s just an instinct, then running under the dinner table isn’t quite the same as saying the rosary, is it?
“No, it’s a much simpler system than that,” he retorts. “Even squirrels are animists. And crows. If something acts like it has a spirit, believe it. And assume that spirit is probably on the evil side. I mean, look at that nasty little table: why does it leap at me? If something wants to be friends, it comes up in plain sight, like a Jeep. It doesn’t wait, dead quiet, staring, and then JUMP! That’s what predators do. And if a spoon uses predator behavior, I’m not going to stand around wondering why. I’m going to assume the spoon intends to get me.”
I’m starting to understand. Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit and intention. This makes sense, at least for living things. After all, every living thing—tree, mosquito, buffalo—does intend to eat, compete and reproduce. I suppose those plans could amount to a kind of spiritual life—a blind, biological faith.
But the dog’s animism is the belief that even rocks and furniture have plans.
He returns his head to his paws and studies me. “You think you’re so different, down under the scientific stuff? How come you jump and bark when somebody pops a balloon? Because the old part of your brain still works, that’s why. Your wild brain knows that noise could be lightning coming to get you. How come when I stare at the side of your head at dinner time, you look at me? Because your wild brain is always on the look-out for eyes, that’s why. Lion eyes. You people haven’t gone completely soft. Somewhere in there, you’re still godfearing.”
His lids are drooping and he yawns. “You knew other things too,” muses the pious beast. “When something runs away from you, it’s food. I’ve reminded you so many times. Even if it goes up a tree and stops running: still food.” He sighs. “You used to know that.” And then he’s asleep, his twitching legs carrying him back to a time when together we crossed entire, mystical continents, running from the lions and eating the cats.
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