Culture: Stories & Lit
Mother, Mutts and Mercies
Patches joined our family as a puppy when I was two, so she was 13 when I accidentally killed her. She was a mutt and looked like the RCA dog, all white with a brown patch over one eye, but 10 pounds bigger. She had 13 puppies in her first litter, which I took to mean she was Catholic, like our family of nine kids.
Patches licked everyone who came to the house: the Fuller Brush man, the Bourbeau brothers who lived across the street, even my crazy Aunt Madge. Patches smiled like a person, and when she was excited, she pranced, her nails clicking on the kitchen’s linoleum floor like castanets. Otherwise, she was the sole calm presence in the cyclone of our loud, melodramatic family.
However, one thing did upset this otherwise placid dog: explosions, like fireworks and thunder. During thunderstorms, I sometimes crawled with her into her doghouse and held her. Her doghouse smelled like popcorn, like her feet. But holding her never quieted her trembling. After one particularly bad storm, I vowed to find a way to help her overcome this.
I had few friends then, not even in my family. I wanted most to be included by my older brother, Jay, and my cousin, Roy, both jocks, both popular. I was pudgy, smart and solitary. I didn’t know why, but I always irritated Jay, and he and Roy banned me from their fort in the woods. Once, I offered to line the trails to the fort with white birch branches. I thought it would look cool. They agreed, and after I did this, I thought I was in; I tried to join them in the fort, and they pinned me to the ground and stuffed pine needles and dog crap in my mouth.
So Patches was not only my best friend, she was my only friend.
The Scantic, a small river brimming with brown trout and foot-long white suckers, coursed from one end of our western Massachusetts farm town to the other. Every summer for years, Patches and I hiked behind our house in the woods along the Scantic, just the two of us. Sometimes I fished. Other times, we just walked for hours.
Patches never seemed happier than during these outings. Me too. I picked bouquets of wildflowers: daisies, yellow flag irises, flame-red Indian paintbrushes, blue cornflowers and my favorite, Queen Anne’s lace—hundreds of white florets with a few red petals in the center, “a drop of Christ’s blood,” my aunt taught me. Sometimes I’d pick gloriously scented snow-white water lilies, which meant walking into the stinking mud of the swamps. We came home filthy.
I always handed the flowers to my mother, who was loving to all of us, but unsentimental by nature. “Put them in a vase,” she said when I presented my bouquets, and never anything else. I was the sort of boy who picked flowers for his mother, and in our traditional family, boys didn’t do that. Her response made me feel embarrassed, made me aware of my difference, but I still gave her flowers every week.
At that time in my life, given that I was a social misfit, I gorged on books. I’d often turn on a light at four in the morning to read, and this drove Jay, with whom I shared a bedroom, into red-faced rages because I woke him, and because he hated me for being such an egghead.
One night when I was 13 and alone in my bedroom, my mom walked in. From the top of my dresser, she picked up a book I was reading, Howl, by the Beat poet Alan Ginsberg, which had, among many other indecencies, explicit descriptions of sexual acts with his lover, Peter Orlofsky. This was my first introduction to homosexual love as something to be celebrated.
She held the book in the air and looked me in the eye.
“I just want you to know that I know that you’re reading this,” she said, calmly. After her announcement, she set the book down lightly on my dresser and slipped out of the room. At first, I felt dread, then relief and confusion. Why didn’t she forbid me to read the book? I was aware of my attraction to boys, but didn’t think of myself as gay. I knew adult men in our town whom my brothers and I suspected were gay, all of them recluses and outcasts. I would never be one of them— would I?
I now know that she understood I was gay long before I did. In that moment, with a mother’s love, she chose to disregard a sin that her church taught her would deny a person entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The morning I accidentally killed Patches, the two of us found ourselves home alone. This rarely happened. The day evolved perfectly for the plan I’d concocted. A thunderstorm rumbled in the valley to the south, and I had stolen a pack of firecrackers—12 on a single fuse—from my dad’s underwear drawer. These, and my best intentions, created the perfect opportunity to cure her of her fear. Or so I thought.
From inside the house, I listened as the storm approached and the first booms of thunder echoed in our valley. Seconds later, Patches, who had been lying on the grass in the back yard, stood and bolted up the back stairs. If I hadn’t opened the door, she would have dived for cover into her doghouse; instead, she sprinted to the basement and squeezed behind the washing machine, shaking.
I ran downstairs after her and crawled behind the washer to be with her. In this cramped space, where moving an inch meant scratching myself on the rough concrete wall, I held her close to me. She trembled, she didn’t struggle, and she didn’t lick my face as she always did when I held her. Then, as I had rehearsed in my mind a dozen times, I lit a match, then the fuse, and tossed the firecrackers over the washing machine, 10 feet away.
I squeezed Patches against my chest as the firecrackers exploded in a rapid chain: POW-POW-POW-POW. The small room’s concrete floor and walls amplified sound, and the blasts echoed far louder than they would have done outdoors. My eardrums hummed, muting all sound. I looked down at Patches. She still hung in my arms. And she still shuddered.
What went wrong? She knew I loved her. This knowledge and a hug, I was convinced, would prove to her that the firecracker bangs weren’t to be feared. But I had failed her. If anything, her shaking seemed worse.
I stayed with her, huddled behind the washer. Eventually, she stopped trembling. I settled her onto a blanket, and she slept. I tiptoed upstairs to my bedroom, my ears still throbbing.
That afternoon, after my hearing began to return, I heard some of my siblings come home. Within a minute, Matt, my 12-year-old brother, came running up from the basement.
“Patches is walking in circles!” he hollered.
“What?” I yelled. I ran downstairs to the basement. Patches’ head tilted to the left and she zigzagged as she walked. I stood 10 feet in front of her and called her name.
“Here, Patches!” She lurched toward me and then veered to the left, then lurched toward me and veered again to the left. I felt my heart lurch too. Something was terribly wrong.
I held her. Within minutes, my parents came home. They picked her up and put her in the back of our family car, an early ’70s white woody station wagon, and drove her to the vet. I slunk back to my room and waited for them to return. Finally, four hours later, my parents drove into the driveway. All of us ran to the car and stood waiting. When they got out, Patches didn’t jump out after them, and when they shut the car doors, Cory, my six-year-old sister, started bawling. Silently, we flanked them into the kitchen, where they explained that the vet had told them that Patches had had a stroke, and she likely wouldn’t recover, given her age. With the vet, they decided that the best thing to do was to put her to sleep.
Today, now that I’m a vet, I know that it isn’t possible to pin with certainty the cause of a stroke on a particular outside event. But it’s also possible, even likely, that the extreme stress of the basement explosions kicked loose a blood clot to jam a small artery or even speed her heartbeat enough to burst a fragile vessel in her old brain.
Everyone was too stunned to speak. Some walked outside; others, like me, tiptoed to our rooms.
For more than 20 years, up to my graduation from veterinary school, I spoke to no one about that day. After Patches’ death, I built a shrine near a giant oak tree, the only tree that stood in the middle of a mile-long cornfield with a path running through it that we had walked together a hundred times. Under the tree there, I built a cross out of sticks. I left her threadbare leash, a cellophane-wrapped photo of the two of us and flowers.
In the ways that we communicate with our beloved dead pets, I spoke to Patches in the following years. I asked her forgiveness. And, at some inexplicable, fundamental level, I know she said yes. She gave me her forgiveness.
In later years, I felt it most during solitude, strolling the pebbled shores of Lake Champlain near my college in Burlington, Vt., or later along the lotus-covered ponds in Ueno Park, Tokyo, where I lived for three years as a teacher.
Gradually, her forgiveness spread through my world and made new beginnings possible; it was as if a mile-high blanket of oxygen covered the planet, letting me breathe with ease even at the steepest heights.
In Tokyo, I made the decision to apply to veterinary school. I also accepted I was gay. Before I could come to that, I first needed to forgive others for their unkindnesses, my brother’s and cousin’s especially, and myself for believing them. Because at last, I understood that no one needed to be forgiven for being gay.
Coming out as gay was not an act of defiance against church and family. More than anything, it was a celebration of the mercies that had made my adult life possible: those of a knowing mother and a smiling white dog.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Nick was my husband’s dog. But, come June, he tagged along every time I ventured out to the garden with my picking bucket. Like me, the big yellow Lab knew that nothing in the world tastes as good as a strawberry plucked hot from the vine on a summer day. I think of him now, with this year’s bumper crop of berries, as I lean over to snap the stem of each scarlet jewel between my thumbnail and index finger.
Years ago, a friend gave me these plants, an ever-bearing variety that yields fruit almost until the first frost. Strawberry plants usually produce for just two years and then must be replaced using the offspring or “suckers” from the original plant, and most people grow them in regimented rows with ample space between the rows for the pickers to navigate. But mine have been allowed to roam—much to the dismay of my straight-line, engineer husband—wandering aimlessly around the front of our vegetable garden, replanting themselves among the flowers, rhubarb and herbs with which they share the space.
Picking berries in my patch presents a challenge even for the average two-footed being, but this Retriever’s four club-sized paws bouncing atop my bumpy red-and-green crazy quilt spelled disaster for the tender fruit. So, Nick soon came to understand that his place was on the perimeter. There he would wait, brow wrinkled, nose twitching, ears pricked forward until I called, “Hey Nick ... Wanna berry?”
One for Nick, one for the bucket, one for me: that was how my picking often went.
Nick left us at age 14 and a half—a good long life for a big dog but not nearly enough for me. I miss him every day. He was the only fruit-loving dog I’ve ever known, dancing on his hind legs to pick green apples from the gnarled Red Delicious over by the pasture as soon as they grew to size in August or September. “Where’s Nick?” somebody would wonder, and we’d go hunting to find him under the old tree, sucking the remains of an apple core.
He had a taste for cantaloupe and watermelon as well, though he didn’t participate in the kids’ seed-spitting contests. He ate bananas, and even developed a foolproof way of picking raspberries, sauntering between the rows of canes, lifting that droopy upper lip and positioning his teeth just so to roll each purple pillow from its thorny stem into his soft Retriever’s mouth. Still, his favorite was strawberries.
This dog’s taste for strawberries allowed him a kind of symbiosis with the birds. Birds are strawberry lovers, too, and they can do a lot of damage. It should come as no surprise that a robin, for example, will bypass all the piddling undersized berries and pick the biggest, shiniest globe in the garden to sample first thing in the morning. These juicy morsels with a slice out of the side will spoil the rest of the berries in your bucket and so have to be thrown away unless you have a hungry Lab waiting nearby.
In my experience, strawberries hide as a matter of practice. Under their big clover-shaped leaves, they conceal their ripeness. Not wanting to be picked, they lurk in the shadows of sunflowers that have come up voluntarily next to the compost bin. As I reach into the waxy leaves of sweet marjoram that has surprisingly returned to my Pennsylvania garden, my fingers find the most luscious berry, hot in the sun, effervescing a delightful scent with hints of oregano—a perfect specimen, save for one ignominious gash on its crimson shoulder.
Hey, Nicky ... How about a berry? I call silently, closing my eyes, expecting to see my golden boy there next to Grandma Graham’s peony bush, doing his happy dance, bouncing first on one oafish front paw and then the other, ears cocked, mouth open, pearly whites just waiting for the toss.
Finding only a disappointing empty place in the sun, I bite off the good half, ruby juice rolling down my chin. And I savor the sweetness, knowing that even in dog heaven there can be nothing better than a strawberry, fresh from the patch on a summer’s day.
Culture: Science & History
Robert Weintraub talks about Judy, a remarkable dog
We recently talked with Robert Weintraub, author of No Better Friend, our favorite book of 2015. This remarkable story about Judy, the only canine POW of World War II, has won the praise of many critics, and was selected, too, by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan as one of last year’s best. This inspiring (and harrowing) story reminds us just how inimitable our bond is with dogs.
Q: No Better Friend is certainly an apt title for a book about an amazing dog and the intense bonds she shared with the people in her life. What made you decide on this title?
A: Well, in all honesty, the marketing department at Little, Brown went through a whole host of options before we settled on this. But No Better Friend, I thought, captured Judy’s incredible loyalty and unique comradeship with the servicemen, both before and during her imprisonment. She took the saw, “man’s best friend,” to a whole new level.
Q: What inspired you to write about this subject—not just Judy, but also, WWII POWs and the Pacific theater?
A: Once I discovered Judy’s story, I knew I would have to capture the larger picture of her fellow prisoners, Frank Williams in particular. That led me to the fall of Singapore and the mad dash to Sumatra amid total Japanese domination in the South China Sea. Had Judy been in France, of course, I would have told that story, so in a sense, she took me to the Pacific. But despite their intense deprivations, the POWs of Sumatra have been largely ignored by history, so I was rather glad to be able to shine a light on a subsection of WWII that was more shadowy than others.
Q: You come from a sports journalism background—is there anything from that perspective that especially drew you to Judy’s story?
A: Certainly the qualities that draw people (including me) to sports—performance under duress, teamwork, strength of character—were fully on display in this story. The POWs, including (and especially) Judy, got one another through the worst possible times. They shared food despite not having enough for themselves. They put themselves in harm’s way to prevent fellow prisoners from taking beatings from the guards. They nursed one another through terrible disease and suffering. Judy and her fellow POWs rose above the nadir of humanity to display the best qualities humans have to offer. Obviously, the stakes were far higher than in any sporting contest, but the characteristics were similar, just writ large.
Q: It’s difficult to read about this period in history—about a war waged against a country that practiced extreme mistreatment of captives, unhindered by the Geneva convention. It makes stories about survivors like Judy and Frank Williams even more startling, and the details of what they, and many others, went through as POWs that much harder to digest. That must have been very challenging as you researched the topic.
A: I considered myself something of a buff on military history, WWII in particular, even before I began the research, but nothing prepares you for firsthand accounts of the brutality and shocking inhumanity of the camps. The legacy of the German concentration camps somewhat obscures the horrors in the Japanese camps, at least to the average person, so I thought it was important not to shy away from the terror tactics and sadistic barbarity practiced by the Japanese (and their Korean lackeys). In the course of writing, I found that any temptation I had to ease up on the worst of the offenses was offset by admiration for the POWs and Judy’s ability to withstand them. So my perspective tilted; I actually wanted to highlight the atrocities, for they presented Judy and her friend’s courage and endurance in greater relief.
Q: I tagged more pages in this book than in most that I review. Judy demonstrated so many instances of valor, intelligence, loyalty and, at times, cunning. Which ones stand out for you?
A: Yes, Judy made the exceptional look almost routine. Before she was even taken prisoner, she had several amazing episodes. At one point she took to guiding a small band of shipwreck survivors across the Sumatran interior in a quest for escape, through a deep rainforest thick with insects, mud and predators. Judy was actually slashed by a crocodile during this long march, but kept to her station as ranger, leading the group to (perceived) safety on the opposite coast.
There was the time when she was being transported by Japanese prison ship and the boat was sunk by a torpedo. She narrowly escaped, and once in the water, went about saving the lives of flailing shipmates instead of worrying for her own safety. In the camps, she repeatedly threw herself at guards in order to distract them from beating up fellow prisoners. One time she was shot and slightly wounded while thrusting herself between attacker and prey. Judy obviously put herself in grave danger during these episodes. But she continued to stand up for her fellow POWs right until liberation. Hers was truly a story not just of survival, but also of spirited resistance.
Q: What do you think made Judy so exceptional? As I read this book, I looked at my dogs and wondered what they would have done in the same circumstances. Do you have a dog?
A: We have young children, so we are waiting until they are a bit older before we get a dog of our own. But I grew up with a very loyal, very spirited Golden Retriever. Although he wasn’t nearly as intelligent as Judy, I like to think that he would have displayed the same courage and stamina. I don’t know that it’s possible to compare an average domestic canine with Judy, however. While she wasn’t a trained military dog, she was a mascot on a navy ship from a very young age, and was baptized to the sights and sounds (and smells!) of war, as well as death and destruction. Even before that, as a very young pup, she escaped from her kennel and survived on the streets of Shanghai for months before being brought home again. Clearly, this was a dog with something special inside her; an essential piece of her welcomed action and adventure, and when she faced the worst, she rose above it.
Q: What do you think it is about dogs that draws people like Frank Williams to the realization that, as you write, “His love for her was noble”?
A: Clearly, we recognized dogs’ special kinship with us at some point in their transition from wild animal to domesticated friend. In Frank’s case specifically, I was putting his love and loyalty to Judy in the context of his experience during the war. He was captured early on without putting up much of a fight (he was a radar technician in the Royal Air Force). After years of awful treatment in the camps, he had every reason to give up and let death take him, as so many other prisoners did. But Judy’s battling example shook him from his lethargy, and instilled in him the seed to fight on, survive each day, and put faith in a better time ahead. In exchange, he shared every bit of devotion he had with Judy, even risking his life to procure official POW status for her. In the worst situation imaginable, even worse than the war itself, Frank found the nobility that had eluded him while he was a free man. That was thanks to a dog—a special dog, true. But the qualities all dogs bring out in people is what makes our relationship with them so remarkable.
Q: I understand that a young readers’ version will be out soon. How did you recast the story to make it appropriate for that age group without diminishing its essence?
A: That version will be out on May 3, thank you for mentioning that! It was a difficult task to rework the narrative for younger readers, in part because I had never done it before, and in part because of the material. I had to walk a fine line between highlighting the inhumanity of the camps, which made Judy and Frank’s bond so special, without overplaying the brutality. I also found it necessary to trim much of the surrounding historical material in order to concentrate on the story at the heart of the book, the relationship between Judy and Frank. Not to worry, however; a series of sidebars provides historical context while not diverting the main narrative.
Q: What do you hope younger readers learn from your book?
A: I hope kids everywhere, including Asia (there is a Chinese edition), learn that love, loyalty and friendship are unconquerable, no matter how horrifying the surrounding conditions. And that while humans are forever finding ways to treat one another badly, the special relationships we have with dogs can transcend the often-shaky relationships we have with each other.
For more see our review of No Better Friend, plus an excerpt from the book.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Picking up the pieces after a breakup
Musician, writer, actor, Portlandia creator, Carrie Brownstein is an alt-scene megastar. The following excerpt from her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, picks up after the split up of her band Sleater-Kinney, and we see her putting her abundant skills to help shelter animals.
Instead of playing or thinking about music, I dove into my volunteer work at the Oregon Humane Society, which is just about the only way I knew how to deal with the loss. If you’re wondering how sad I was, you’d never know by talking to me, but you would know it by the fact that I won the Oregon Humane Society Volunteer of the Year Award in 2006, the year of Sleater- Kinney’s demise.
I clocked in over one hundred hours that year. I developed new programs to help long-term canine shelter residents get adopted, I made laminated flyers replete with photos I took of the dogs and added pat, inspirational, and euphemistic phrases like “If you love a toothy kiss, you’ll love Buster” to promote specific dogs. I walked them on the shelter grounds and even took them on field trips. I taught the more rambunctious dogs to sit, wait, go to their bed, how to walk better on the leash. I sat in the lobby wearing my teal volunteer apron with two large front pockets gritty with dog treat remnants, torn and gooey from overeager puppy mouths, stretched from too much wear and not enough washing. I greeted customers in the lobby, grateful to be in a uniform, just one of many, anonymous and near invisible in a place where frumpiness and depression thrive. The dogs I brought with me to the lobby were my interlocutors, my translators; they bounded up to customers and I channeled their optimism. They lived in the moment, grateful for the interaction, and so was I. I had a purpose, even if part of that purpose was hosing down feces-covered kennels. The dogs’ needs seemed simple, and I required simple needs: to have somewhere to be. It’s easy to feel sated when all you’re asking for in life is food, water, and some gentle petting.
I befriended the older women who made up the majority of the other volunteers. Retirees and former powerhouses in realms like consulting and finance, bored at home, sapped by stale marriages, with reticent or far-flung adult children and ill or dying friends, these women felt useful and appreciated. We formed a constellation of surrogates who likely should have been paying the dogs for therapy; it could have funded the entire shelter operation. We cried when dogs were euthanized but also when they were adopted; we had been seeking comfort in the constant and could barely deal with change. The term “shelter” seemed to apply as much to the humans as it did to the animals.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A valentine from the heart.
I have to admit that, for a few weeks following the adoption of my new dog—an ex-racing Greyhound I named Elvis (Hey! Costello, not Presley!)—I was a bit concerned. Not about him. He seemed like a nice enough dog.
No, it was me I was worried about.
After all, Elvis was well behaved. Gentle. Mild-mannered. Practically perfect. And he was certainly pretty enough, with big doe-eyes and an irresistible coat of honey and velvet. Why, it was enough to make anyone fall head over heels at first sight.
Except I didn’t. And I was confused. Where was that overwhelming rush of love I was expecting to feel when Golden State Greyhound Adoption (GoldenGreyhounds.com) first delivered my new dog to my home? Was there something wrong with me? Or was Elvis not the dog I was meant to have? Where was the bond? How could I not instantly love my new pet?
And therein lay the answer: He was new. How could I love a creature I didn’t know?
Ah, but today. Ask me today if I love my dog and I can rattle off a litany that makes my eyes mist over and my heart swell with affection.
I love the happy little tippy-tap dance Elvis does whenever I ask, “Do you want…?” because he knows these words will be followed with the offer of either a cookie or a walk. In the eyes of Elvis, both of these are extremely good things and his transparent joy over such simple pleasures is a sight to behold.
I love the way Elvis greets me at the front door every time I walk through it. “You came back! You returned! This is so great! You’re home! Wow!” Whether I’ve been gone five minutes or five hours, his enthusiastic response never varies. He celebrates my homecoming each and every time, never letting me forget that, regardless of what’s happening elsewhere in my life, in this little corner of the world I am loved. Maybe I missed a deadline at work or was cut off on the freeway. Maybe I’m feeling tired or stressed, discouraged or alone. Never mind. When I enter my home and my dog leaps into my arms, I forget my worries and for that moment, am awash in pure joy.
I love the way Elvis sits alongside me while I work at my computer. Sometimes he rests his head in my lap. Other times. he just stares at me, his Bambi eyes brimming over with love. It occurs to me that if I could get a man to look at me the same way, I’d be the luckiest person on earth. And then my dog leans against me and sighs a contented sigh, and I feel like I already am.
I love watching Elvis sort through his toy basket. After selecting the toy he’s going to play with, he flips it in the air or dances around it, amusing himself no end. I find toys scattered throughout the house, evidence of his activities while I’m at work. His playtime concludes when he tires himself out and falls asleep in his La-Z-Dog recliner, often with his head resting upon a beloved toy.
I love to hear him snore. It reminds me that my dog is nearby, and that if I want tangible evidence of all that is good and right with my life, I just have reach down and stroke his silky neck, clasp his twitching paw or feel his beating heart. When he’s curled up like a doughnut on his pillow, his snoring is an affirmation of the deep sleep that comes with feeling comfortable and content. Elvis is a long way from the cold crate he once called home.
I love the back of his soft, floppy ears. No reason why. I just do.
I love the way Elvis trots alongside me when we go for a walk and he presses his head to the side of my thigh. Despite the freedom his leash affords, he wants to feel his human nearby. Occasionally my lovely, loving boy looks up at me with eyes so happy it brings a lump to my throat.
I love watching Elvis gallop across the dog park chasing other dogs. Not to earn money for a racetrack, but to play with his pals—fellow Greyhounds BJ and Champ, Sadie the Lab, and Rikki the Border Collie. My dog’s speed and grace remind me of his former life and how lucky I am that his final race was for my heart.
A race he won. Maybe not in record time, but definitely hands down.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Becoming a dog owner helped me dispel internalized myths about black people and dogs.
Until I met Cleo, I was a recovering cat lady who didn’t believe I could be a proper dog owner. In the communities where I grew up in Philadelphia and the Bronx, dogs were not sweet, lovable companions or surrogate children, but rather, terrifying or utilitarian animals. They required more work and money and energy than cats, and I never believed I had any of those to spare.
Until I moved to New York City, I had never encountered anything like the yapping Chihuahuas I saw in the homes of my black and Latino friends, or the sleek Afghan Hounds with stylish owners who appeared to float through Central Park.
I was, however, an animal lover from a young age, probably because I was abused as a child. Rescuing animals, particularly stray cats, empowered me; I hoped it showed the universe that I was invested not just in saving myself but also, in saving other creatures.
But dogs were different. The popular-culture connection between blacks and dogs is long and violent, punctuated by indelible images of police dogs (usually German Shepherds) lunging, teeth bared, or attacking Civil Rights protesters. Added to that history, the news reported by the blog ThinkProgress.org—that in the first half of 2013, blacks and Latinos were the only ones bitten by police dogs—makes that attitude easier to understand. According to the ThinkProgress story, in the 1980s, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department reportedly referred to young blacks as “dog biscuits”—a sad legacy.
Whether or not we think dogs can be racist (a persistent Internet question), or believe that the majority of black people are inclined to repeat Michael Vick’s sins, the historical memory of and relationship between African Americans and dogs still seems fraught.
Historically, dogs have been classified as man’s best friend. But in America, manhood did not equally apply to white and black. If we were property, we could not own anything, not even an animal. The cultural adhesive that bound dogs to white people did not extend to African Americans, in part because some of us were not considered fully human enough to make best friends of beasts. There is, too, the financial responsibility of adding a pet in a context in which families historically had less disposable income to expend on the needs of a dog; it made dogs a luxury not easily afforded.
There have also been better narratives of African Americans and canine companions, especially in recent memory. As we have benefited from some of the economic effects of integration and assimilation, so, too, has our relationship with dogs.
When George Foreman went to Zaire to fight Muhammad Ali in 1974, he took his German Shepherd with him. Foreman has almost a dozen dogs, and while he was training, he told the Wall Street Journal that he enjoyed having a friend accompany him during his runs, among other things. In 2007, ESPN panelist Kevin Blackistone offered a commentary on black men and dogs for NPR, noting that Bill Cosby was a co-owner of a Dandie Dinmont named Harry who was favored to win the Westminster dog show. “And how can we forget the most-heartwarming stories from the tragedy of Katrina? They were of dog owners, mostly the working-class poor in heavily black neighborhoods like the now-famous Ninth Ward, who refused to evacuate without their four-legged loved ones,” Blackistone said.
I knew this kind of sentimental attachment. I have had it for kittens and maps, for letters and perfume gift-set boxes. I have witnessed, too, some black men in love with their dogs. As a young and serious hip hop fan, I took note of DMX (Earl Simmons), the first rapper I knew to boast about his love for dogs, and even incorporate barking as part of his rapping style, which sounds ridiculous now but was successful for him and the Ruff Ryders record label. He had a portrait of his beloved dog, Boomer, who was killed by a motorist, tattooed on his back. When I was a teenager, this relationship with dogs struck me as unusual for African Americans. (Lest I make Simmons sound like a good role model, I later learned that he had engaged in dog fighting and had both mental health and drug problems. In 2008, he was charged with cruelty to animals when Arizona officials seized a dozen underfed Pit Bulls and Pit mixes from his home.)
Thankfully, examples of black people with dogs are not all narratives of pathology and violence. As Blackistone said on NPR, “Most black folks are like me—I’ll do anything for my adopted Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Mocha.” Oprah Winfrey, probably the most famous person on the planet, is also a clear-cut dog champion. Visit Oprah.com and you’ll meet all of Winfrey’s furry companions, past and present: Cocker Spaniels Solomon, a 1994 Christmas present from Stedman Graham, and Sophie (both died in 2008). Luke, Layla and Gracie, Golden Retrievers adopted in 2006. Another Cocker, Sadie, whom Oprah adopted in 2009 from PAWS Chicago and who overcame parvovirus. For her 56th birthday, Oprah went back to PAWS and adopted Springer Spaniels Sunny and Lauren.
While a lot has been made of our first black president along symbolic, political and historical lines, the First Family has also provides us with another healing and sweet example. Not long after moving into the White House, the Obamas added Bo to their family. Then, in 2013, they gave him a little sister and playmate, Sunny. Both are Portuguese Water Dogs. Before they got Sunny, First Lady Michelle Obama told reporters that she hosted a “doggie play date” because “Bo [didn’t] have enough dog interaction,” according to the White House Blog.
In cities I’ve lived in around the country, I’ve also noted more black dog owners. This was especially evident when I moved to Austin in 2005 to work at the daily newspaper and attend graduate school. During the first few years I lived in Austin, I was far too busy for a pet. I was also incredibly lonely, confused by the liberal veneer of the place but seduced by the delicious food and the kindness and hospitality of my friends and colleagues. With about 300 sunny days a year, it was a perfect town for a runner, which I was becoming. Maybe if I had a dog to run with, I wouldn’t feel so out of place, I thought. Peer pressure also played a part.
My friends noted that I was a single woman living on my own in a less-than-pristine part of town. A photo editor at the newspaper heard that I was thinking about getting a dog, and mentioned that her friend was looking for someone to care for his dog Cleo. He had a brain tumor and was going into hospice, so he needed to find her a home quickly. I drove out to his trailer in Bastrop, wondering how my life might change if I got a dog, thinking of all the reasons I was still very much a cat lady. Then I spotted Cleo, affectionately tapping that long tail of hers. A Mastiff/Shepherd, she was the answer to my unspoken prayer.
She came to live with me and promptly took over the sturdiest couch in my home. She had a beautiful brindle coat and serious amber eyes, and was in love with the neighborhood cats; she wagged her tail in admiration whenever one strolled past us. She ran happily unless the heat was too much, and then she would stubbornly drop her 70-pound frame to the ground in the middle of the trail at Lady Bird Lake until I got the hint.
At the dog park, I noticed one other black woman who regularly brought her Boxer. My friend, Brock, also had a gigantic brown Labrador named Brixton. Spotting other black dog owners at the park was affirming; it demonstrated that not all black dog owners were as wealthy as the Obamas or Oprah, or up to anything sinister like Vick or DMX. It was a bonus to know that, whenever dogs barked at me and Cleo, it was because she was as tall as a mini-pony, not because the dogs were reactive or their owners were racist.
Cleo and I did, however, have to contend with some confused stares from people when we went places in Austin. “Only white people go everywhere with their dogs,” one of my best friends said. I carry a Moleskine planner and am a poster girl for everything listed in the book Stuff White People Like, so that was fine with me. What was weird, especially when Vick was in the news, was that I often got confused stares from people who weren’t used to seeing a black woman with a large dog. On the other hand, I might have been projecting my own self-consciousness as one of the 8 percent of Austin’s black population.
Cleo helped make Austin feel more like home to me, in part because it’s a dog’s town and she was raised in that area. But I always felt a sense of unease—a hypervisible invisibility—that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. When Cleo was with me, I was okay, though people would talk to her as if I wasn’t around. But when I ran on my own, I was stared at and generally dismissed—an aberration in a largely white environment.
Cleo was aging when I got her, and by the time I grew weary of feeling isolated in Austin, her muzzle was almost completely gray. My sweet old lady was on a steady diet of antibiotics and other medication when she died suddenly at home, about a month before I left Austin to try living for a while in Washington, D.C. After she died, I mused that she would probably have hated the idea of snow. “You’re a Texas dog, honey,” I said to her. “I understand.”
We might have gotten some strange looks in D.C., too. In 2012, D.C. had the dubious distinction of being the place with the lowest rate of pet ownership in the country (Vermont had the highest, according to the 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook). The last time the American Veterinary Medical Association took a survey in 2006, just 20.2 percent of households in D.C. had pets. Anecdotally, this appears true: I saw more black people with dogs in Austin than I’ve seen during the few months I’ve lived here.
I was grateful for the many things I learned from Cleo in the time that I got to spend with her, not the least of which was the joy of her unconditional love and sweetness at a time when I needed it the most. I have been so sad and heartbroken that I still haven’t cleaned her nose marks off the inside of the car windows, where she liked to stick her head out and smile at the wind. Despite my fears about being judged as a black woman in love with dogs, glancing at my back seat where Cleo used to ride reminds me how nice it is to be pleasantly surprised, to get beyond our prejudices and love a dog … and maybe people, too.
Culture: Stories & Lit
At just after noon today a spokesperson for the McBickly family indicated that, following months of negotiation and many setbacks, an agreement had been reached between the McBicklys and their dogs, three Beagles, that would curb the Beagles’ explosive response to drivers from FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service. The dogs, who represented themselves in the talks, signaled their contentment by sleeping in sunny spots on the McBicklys’ living room carpet all afternoon.
Critics of the deal were quick to express their skepticism.
“The dogs got the better of them,” said a neighbor whose back yard abuts the McBicklys’. “They were outsmarted.”
While details of the arrangement have yet to be set in stone, Tucker and Mindy McBickly acknowledged at a press conference later in the day that the dogs had, in fact, negotiated a number of concessions in return for their pledge of restraint. For one, the Beagles’ dinnertime, which had already inched back from 5:00 to 4:15, will be “readjusted” to 3:30 pm.
“We retain absolute control over their feeding schedule,” Tucker McBickly insisted, “and over all kibbled and canned products and treats. The readjustment simply means that we’ll be feeding a bit earlier.” After a pause he added, “And not that we’ll be feeding more, as some have alleged. We were firm about this, especially with Ajax, who’s a real chowhound.”
Onlookers confirmed that Ajax, a manly tricolor with a stunning horseshoe of white across his hindquarters, continued to paw at the kitchen floor next to his food bowl until just moments before he shook hands with Mindy McBickly by way of sealing the deal.
It had been widely reported that Comet, Ajax’s junior by about four years, had pushed hard for more frequent walks as a condition of his endorsing the agreement. Eyewitnesses confirmed that Comet would often pop up with a leash in his mouth at dinner parties and other social occasions hosted by the McBicklys, as if to imply that he considered his exercise regimen wanting.
“Then one morning my foot touched something between the sheets at the bottom of the bed,” Mindy recounted, wide-eyed. “It was the leash.”
“Our son Skyler has agreed to walk Comet three more times a week,” Tucker interjected, referring to the McBicklys’ 11-year-old, who spent the entirety of the news conference playing Call of Duty on his mother’s rose-colored iPhone 6s. A side-bargain stipulates that he will be getting a new device of his own in the fall.
“And the last thing,” Tucker said to the gaggle of reporters on his front lawn, “is that my daughter Abigail has agreed to limit the time her hamster, Taylor Swift, spends in the wheel. He observed that the grating of the hamster wheel particularly irritated Alice, the youngest and perhaps the most sensitive of the Beagles.
“What about sanctions?” said a very blonde newsperson, reading the question from a card.
“It’s true,” said Mindy McBickly, “that after the way they reacted to Amazon deliveries last holiday season, we took a big bucket of toys away from the dogs. If they behave themselves over the next six weeks, we’ve agreed to slowly reintroduce those toys and add a few more.”
The news conference drew to a quick close when Ajax McBickly urinated on a CNN cameraman’s Docksiders. “Just marking his territory!” Tucker shouted as the crowd dispersed. “Entirely within the agreement.”
Ajax made his way to the kitchen and pawed the floor next to his food bowl. It was precisely 3:30 pm.
Culture: Readers Write
One morning a woman was walking on the beach
She turned toward the ocean,
She thought of all the animals
She wanted to save every animal,
She watched her dog running along ahead,
Hearing her voice, he looked back,
Culture: Stories & Lit
A troubled Greyhound finds her perfect match.
We weren’t going to keep her. That was understood at the outset. By me and by my partner Kathy. By the Greyhound adoption group. By the Greyhound advocacy group that had deemed her a candidate for rehabilitation. Possibly even by Blondie herself. And after we brought her into our home, we wondered if we should have taken her at all.
“Giddy’s Blondie” was one of the last two dogs at Dairyland Greyhound Park, a racetrack in Kenosha, Wisc., when it closed for good at the end of December 2009. Before the track closed, and by the time this exuberant and friendly former racer was three years old, she had been placed in two homes, had been returned to the track’s adoption center twice and had become a dangerously fear-aggressive dog. Probably unadoptable. But the track vet, Dr. Jenifer Barker, thought Blondie could be saved. So did the Greyhound Alliance, a group that facilitates Greyhound adoption through financial support of special-needs dogs, among other things. As a result, Greyhounds Only, Inc., the rescue group from which Kathy and I adopted our three previous retired racers, took Blondie into their program.
The hand of fate seems to have been working feverishly here. For years, Barbara Karant, president of our Greyhound group, had been after us to foster dogs, but Kathy, concerned about upsetting the balance we had with our other dogs, had always been reluctant. So when Barbara asked if we would foster Blondie, I was surprised when Kathy said we’d meet her and maybe, just maybe, foster her. The minute we walked in the door to the facility where Blondie was being held, the sleek dog ran to Kathy and glued herself to my partner’s leg. Kathy joked that Barbara had coached Blondie—who had been keeping her distance from everyone—to do this. We decided to foster. But, just to be clear, we weren’t going to keep her.
A few days into it, we were pretty sure we’d made a huge mistake in agreeing to take her into our home, even temporarily. We’d seen no signs of aggression, but the experience was unsettling nonetheless. Blondie would walk over to one of us and stand very close, clearly wanting attention. The moment we started to pet her, however, she’d yelp as though we’d kicked her, then run to hide in her crate for hours. Thinking she was perhaps in pain, we made what became a series of vet appointments. After countless hours in the offices of an animal behaviorist and a couple of specialty vets in the farthest-flung suburbs of Chicago, it was determined that mostly what she needed was time. And to continue taking Prozac. Steeling ourselves against her yelps, we continued to touch her; she needed to (re)learn that every touch did not mean pain.
As we began gathering bits and pieces of her recent past, we learned that in her first home, there was a teenage son with bipolar affective disorder. While we will never know for sure exactly what happened in that home, it would appear that the son punched, kicked or hit Blondie in the face with a blunt object. After a couple of months, the boy’s mother finally decided that Blondie’s quality of life was not good and returned her to the track’s adoption center. By this time, all the blood vessels in one of her eyes had been broken. Also, though no one was aware of it at the time, her spine had probably been knocked out of alignment, leaving her in near-constant pain.
This last factor became relevant in the second home in which she was placed, where she actually would have been fine with the older single woman who adopted her if not for the actions of her supposedly well-meaning adult son. When mother and son got Blondie to the woman’s home, Blondie hid in her crate. The man tried to force her out, pulling her by the collar. When Blondie bit him, he decided she was dangerous and needed to be returned. He dragged her, still in the metal crate, down a flight of stairs, possibly causing further physical injury. And that was how she came to be left at the track, a hurt, mistrustful creature.
Initially, we were told that had the Greyhound Alliance not interceded on her behalf, she might have been euthanized; one of the adoption groups approached to take her into their program thought she should be put down. Later, when I spoke with Dr. Barker, she said she suspected that Blondie’s trainers liked her well enough that they might have kept her as a “kennel dog”—a dog who no longer raced but continued to live in a crate except for eating and exercise/elimination breaks. She’d have been alive, but not living in any meaningful sense of the word. Once our adoption group took her on, a vet in Chicago, Dr. Kathi Berman, put Blondie on Prozac, and a chiropractor at the practice discovered her spine issues and got those straightened out (no pun intended).
In the meantime, we exercised as much patience as we could muster. I gently pushed Blondie’s limits, trying to show her that I wouldn’t hurt her no matter how much I touched her. Kathy nervously attempted to respect those limits so as not to shatter Blondie’s or our nerves when she had one of her inevitable anxiety attacks. Our little PTSD dog, we called her. Actually, Kathy preferred that name to the one she had, but I reminded her that if we weren’t going to keep her, we shouldn’t change her name. Blondie remained Blondie.
Gradually, Blondie’s panic attacks decreased in length and number—at least around Kathy and me. With friends and family, she still kept a wary distance, especially with Kathy’s dad and brother-in-law. Dr. Barker laughed when she found out that Kathy and I were lesbians: Blondie’s trainers were a lesbian couple, too, she told me. That we are women probably accounted for, in part, Blondie’s burgeoning trust in us —just as her experience with the callous sons in her two previous homes had disposed her to be guarded around men.
There was, for instance, a delusional homeless man who wandered the streets of our neighborhood the year Blondie came into our lives. During this time, there were three dogs in our house: Blondie; Iris (our other Greyhound); and Annie, Kathy’s dad’s Greyhound, who was there temporarily while he was in the process of moving. Walking the dogs, I would often cross paths with the homeless man. Annie loved the guy and couldn’t get enough of his abundant odors. Iris was indifferent to him; if he petted her, she accepted his attention with a bored nonchalance. Blondie— possibly influenced by her earlier experiences— would buck and rear at the end of her leash if he tried to come near her. The fact that he was male can’t have helped either.
But even relatively sane men like our relatives made her uneasy. The behaviorist had said to let Blondie come to them when she was ready, and everyone was careful around her in the beginning, not touching her unless she expressly showed an interest. Even then, she’d often panic and run off. Everybody in our circle knew her history. They were respectful of her limitations, sympathetic to her misfortunes and able to bide their time, waiting for her to come around—literally and figuratively— despite the fact that such standoffishness was not at all characteristic of the love-junkie Greyhounds we’d known up to then.
Sometimes now, when my arms are wrapped around her neck and my face is snuggled against her long snout, I marvel that this is the same dog—this dog who now leans up against friends and family, allows my young nephew to pet her on the head, does tricks for us when we ask, and puts her head in my or Kathy’s lap for many minutes at a time. Yes, as you’ve probably long since guessed, we adopted her.
Over the months when we were trying to get her comfortable in her own fur, we had come to love her. Not only does she have the sweetest face, her willingness to trust again after what she’d been through would have made it hard not to love her. Mostly, though, it was the thought of her having to endure getting used to a whole new family— the cruelty of unsettling her again— that made us decide to keep her.
These days, some three years after she first entered our home, Blondie is, above all, exuberant. Ask her if she wants to go for a walk and she’ll bow, spin and wag her tail ecstatically. She likes to root around in her milk crate for just the right toy, toss it upward, pounce on it and, with her butt in the air and her tail circling like a helicopter rotor blade, manically bite the squeaker. When I let her in from the back yard where she’s been running full tilt, I always say, “Watch your knee caps.” When the door opens, she comes through it like it’s the starting gate at the track: she bolts up the stairs, through the kitchen and dining room, and slides to a stop as she crosses the living room like a canine Kramer from Seinfeld. But she’s not on the track, and she knows it, sidling over to where I’m sitting and positioning her great chest over my thighs so I can hold her.
Our friends in the adoption group joke that we “failed foster.” It’s the proudest I’ve even been about—and the most I’ve ever enjoyed—failing.
Culture: Stories & Lit
An elderly Pug needs a little help with the day-to-day.
I recently put my dog, Jack, into assisted living. I knew it was time: he has escalating hygiene needs, he wanders, he is confused and he often puts himself in harm’s way.
The assisted living facility is lovely. It has wide windows, many of them facing south and east, which let in the warm, chunky beams of sunlight in which Jack loves to nap. There is a pleasant, fenced-in green lawn where he can amble about and pee on flowers. The food is delicious: grain-free kibble twice a day and healthy treats like bits of apple, chicken, carrots and peas. The caretakers are generous, loving people.
The best thing about the facility, though, is the cost. Some assisted-living facilities can be price-prohibitive, but the one we put Jack in is downright affordable. That’s because my husband and I are his caretakers and the assisted living facility is our home.
Jack is a Pug. A bug-eyed, brachycephalic, low-riding Pug. He’s always been a happy, bright, if somewhat confused little character. But at the age of 13, he began marking his territory, not only outdoors, but indoors as well—piano legs, sofa legs, chair legs. (If nothing else, the anthropomorphic use of the word “legs” for these furniture extensions tells us how wrong it is to pee on them.)
It’s not that Jack didn’t have the occasional accident when he was younger. It happened. One morning, my husband, rushing out of the house for work, left a note by the coffee machine that read, “Poop by bookcase.”
Of course, that note wasn’t a directive, an order for me to poop by the bookcase. No, no. It was a straightforward statement of fact, letting me know that there was a pile of poop in front of the bookcase.
I looked at that note and thought, This is just perfect, this is so us. Some spouses might leave a note that said, “Have a nice day,” or maybe, “Dinner out later?” But we have our communication down to the nitty-gritty essentials. (I saved that note, in case I ever begin to put on airs. If I start to think, Gosh, we’re cool people, I can always pull out the note, “Poop by bookcase” to bring myself back to reality.)
When Jack began marking his territory inside, it was clear he didn’t know what he was doing. I scolded him in the beginning, but realized it was mean and senseless to scold a senile dog. It was like scolding a baby, or a fish.
I tried to keep up with the messes. Armed with paper towels and a spray bottle of non-toxic cleaner, I sniffed around the house like a Bloodhound until I’d found and wiped up all the puddles. Though I sprayed the rooms with a “floral” air freshener, there remained a misty background odor of “fetid urine swamp.”
I got to the point where I didn’t want people to come to our home, and if they did, they absolutely had to be dog people. Eventually, I wouldn’t even let dog people in. It was that bad. My husband said a couple of times that our house smelled like a barn, which was so very helpful, Honey. Thank you.
In addition to urinating on his indoor trees, Jack is losing some of his hearing and his sight. Sadly, he sometimes lightly bumps into a table leg while he’s heading who-knows-where. He looks humbled and surprised when this happens, shaking his head like a flummoxed cartoon coyote. I can almost see little stars circling his head.
He’s also begun to growl viciously at coats and bags left on sofas and tabletops, then seems to wonder why these fiendish intruders pay him no heed.
Though he’s failing in some areas, I’m not about to take him to the vet to “put him down.” After all, he’s still Jack, my cherished friend. He runs happily to his food dish. He jumps onto sofas and chairs and deftly scales their backs like a little mountain goat. He wags his tail when we pet him or rub his belly.
I had to take some kind of action, though, to change our embarrassing situation. I needed the equivalent of assisted living for him. Since there are no such facilities for dogs (at least, not in our area), I had to create one.
The first thing I did was acquire a crate I could confine him in when we weren’t home. He’d had a crate as a puppy, but that was long gone. When I put him in the new one, he looked at me with his big bug eyes as though I were dunking him in hot oil instead of on top of a cushy pillow. As soon as he discovered he wasn’t going to fry, however, he quickly accommodated himself to it.
I’ve always heard that dogs feel secure in their crates, and sure enough, Jack now voluntarily goes in his to sleep even when we’re home. I assume it’s much less scary in there than it is in an increasingly strange world, where walls and furniture move around, where the scenery is foggy and there are faint, unknown sounds.
So the crate helped with the accidents. I’ve also begun to let Jack outside much more often than I had been. I let him out a lot, in fact. It’s like training a puppy. Many times, he looks at me like he’s got more on the ball than I think, as if he’s saying, “You just let me out five minutes ago, but if this is what floats your boat …”
The third thing I do in our assisted living plan is to shadow him like a private investigator. If he attempts to creep into another room, I follow him, finally speaking loudly, letting him know I’m right above him.
“I’m right here, Jack. Don’t you dare.” When I do this, he startles and looks up at me, impressed, as if I were some omnipotent god. This trailing is really working. I think he thinks I’m always behind him, even when I’m not.
All of this takes a lot of time, but it’s well worth it.
I hope to keep Jack in assisted living as long as possible. I hope he dies here in his sleep one warm evening. I don’t ever want to “take him in,” or “put him down.” I’ve had to do that with other dogs, and it’s one of life’s profound heartbreakers—to look into the eyes of an innocent animal as he or she is injected with a heart-stopping barbiturate.
What I really want is for Jack to live forever. Is that too much to ask? To have a soft, furry, breathing, creature by my side always? To feel the warm weight of this exact individual against my legs on cold winter evenings? To have a sure listener to help me bear my version of the world’s troubles and sadness?
I know it’s too much to ask. Yet, for however long he has left, I’ll keep him happy and safe in assisted living. Dinner at four, crafts at six, lights out at eight!
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