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.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Possible origins of the term
It’s March Madness, which means that in our house, as well as countless other houses nationwide with people following the NCAA Basketball tournament, things are just a little exciting and crazy. People are speaking differently, with phrases such as “exceeding expectations,” “early foul trouble,” “3-pointer at the buzzer,” “tough matchup” and “leading scorer” replacing much of normal conversation.
Serious basketball fans and those who just watch hoops three weeks out of each year alike share the refrain, “My bracket is a disaster!” The most common phrase of the sportswriter crowd is perhaps “underdogs to root for.” How, exactly, did the term “underdog” come to mean the competitor who is least likely to win?
One theory is that it relates to the practice of sawing wooden planks by hand, which was done by two men using a two-man saw. One man stood on top of the wood in the preferred position while the other stood below in a much less comfortable position in the pit. The iron supports that held the wood were referred to as “dogs,” which has led people to suppose that this situation is the origin of the terms “top dog” and “underdog.” However, there is no evidence whatsoever to support this otherwise lovely theory. There are no written references to either of these terms in the context of sawing wood until after mechanical sawing was the norm.
Another possibility is that the term originates in the world of dog fighting, with the losing dog literally being under the winner at the end of a fight. People who took bets on the fights kept track of a dog’s previous fights, and used the label “underdog” for the dog who was more likely to be beaten in an upcoming fight between two particular dogs.
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.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I got the call while I was on the Amtrak Acela, headed from New York City back home to Providence: Zuzu, our nine-year-old Bichon, had gotten into a bag of leftover Halloween candy, passing up the Dots and Smarties and eating just the chocolate. She was sick, our babysitter Amanda told me. Shivering and panting.
I knew chocolate could be toxic to dogs. But how much would it take? I Googled dog eating chocolate. An ounce per pound was okay. That meant Zuzu could tolerate nine ounces. Visions of Milky Ways and Kit Kats, Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups danced through my head. How much chocolate was in that stuff? When I called the vet, she told me to watch for shallow breathing. Was panting the same as shallow breathing? The train paused in New Haven. I texted Amanda for an update. Still shivering. Still panting. Silently, I added, Still alive. Then I started to cry.
For all kinds of reasons, we love our dogs. Unconditional love. Companionship. Their warm bodies and cold noses. The funny things they do. The way they become part of our families. But it wasn’t until that call that I realized how important Zuzu was to me. Or maybe I should say that I admitted how important she was.
Like all kids, my two — Sam and Grace — wanted a dog. They entertained themselves by looking at pictures of Cockadoodles on the computer and playing with puppies in the pet store. Five-year-old Grace, however, really wanted a dog. She told us how she would train it and feed it and comb it. She told us how she would love it. That Valentine’s Day, my husband wanted to surprise her with a puppy. We’d all somehow landed on a Bichon, and we found a breeder in Oklahoma who asked us: “Do you want the one that dances?” Of course we did. Our dancing puppy had to wait for warmer weather to fly across the country to us, so Valentine’s Day came in March that year.
I wanted to name the dog Zelda. But the kids weren’t sold. As we waited for the puppy’s arrival, they spent all of their time discussing names. Then one day, they came to me. “We’ve picked the name,” Sam announced. “Zuzu!” Grace shouted. It was the perfect name. Every year I sat them down at Christmas and forced them to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with me. I didn’t care how corny the movie was or how many times I’d seen it, Christmas wasn’t Christmas if we didn’t watch it together, a bowl of popcorn passed between us and me crying when Jimmy Stewart runs inside his house calling for Donna Reed. “Zuzu it is,” I said.
Three weeks after Zuzu came to us, Grace died suddenly from a virulent form of strep. In the last picture taken of Grace, she wears a lopsided smile as she holds that white ball of fluff, the dog she’d dreamed of. In the terrible months that followed, Zuzu took on a strange role. She was one more living thing who had known Grace. She had licked her face voraciously and slept in her lap. Such a tenuous link, but when you lose a child, those connections take on an importance that is hard to describe. That year, we did not watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Life seemed anything but wonderful.
Over these eight years, my family has realigned itself. We have added another child, Annabelle, and a menagerie of other pets: a bunny, two frogs and a rotating cast of goldfish. Last Christmas, for the first time since Grace died, I put on It’s a Wonderful Life again. Sam, now 17, rolled his eyes and groaned at the idea of watching it. Annabelle slept through the whole movie, and my husband spent more time checking his email than looking at the television. When I got that call from Amanda, I remembered the importance of Zuzu in the movie. She is the daughter who gives her father a flower that he sticks in his pocket. It is those petals that, when he finds them at the end, tell him that he is still alive and send him running back home to Donna Reed. Zuzu’s petals.
Our Zuzu gives us that, too, a reminder that our Grace was once here with us, that the rest of us are still alive and meant to seize our lives, even with her gone. Crying as the train left New Haven, I thought of the beautiful daughter I lost, how she literally jumped for joy the day I showed up at her school with Zuzu on a pink leash. “That’s my dog!” Grace shouted for the class, the world, to hear.
A text popped up on my phone: Zuzu lives!
When I walked in the door, I took Zuzu in my arms. Her brown eyes settled on mine, and I held that white puff close, my face pressed into her neck. She smelled wonderfully of dog. A respite in this grieving for all that has been lost, for at least a while longer, Zuzu lives.
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
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.
News: Guest Posts
In the introduction to his 1997 book Queer Dog: homo/pup/poetry, Gerry Gomez Pearlberg writes, “Why do gay men and lesbians have so much to say on the subject of dogs? Perhaps because we’re masters at reconfiguring what it means to create family, what it means to be animal and living in skin, what it means to exist in a state of exuberant, unapologetic disobedience.”
It is the spirit of this quote I hoped to bring to life Saturday night, January 16, when I guest curated a pets-themed evening of the successful NYC storytelling series Queer Memoir. The event brings to the stage people from all areas of the community to “provide an avenue to share queer lives and celebrate the ritual and community-building value of storytelling.”
Queer Memoir: Pets was attended by nearly 80 people included storytellers from all across the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community with many stories focusing on the special role that dogs have played in the lives of readers.
Allison Joy, who combines a Reiki practice with her work as a dog trainer with social justice activism, brought a treat bag and clickers to the stage and shared a series of rants about dominance-based training. Colten Tognamino, a dog photographer, shared intimate stories about the joy and heartbreak of being a dad of several very high-needs dogs.
The love and loyalty of dogs was a common theme shared by readers, including Jessica Pabón, who read about holding her best friend Emma, a rescued Rottweiler, before she “went to sleep forever.” I shared an excerpt of my own story (first published in my anthology Kicked Out), which focuses on how my teen years were spent competing in dog agility, but when I came out as gay and became homeless I lost my dogs.
Ultimately, a common thread among the storytellers on this night was the power of dogs to help us make sense of our place in the world. Sound familiar?
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