Culture: Stories & Lit
A friendly pack is scaling ivory towers on campuses worldwide
Spinoza defines far and near like this: far he said, is the constellation of the dog in the night sky, and near is the animal who barks—the distance between abstraction and reality, the ideal, elevated theoretical realm and our earthly, immediate lives. So it is surprising to find that, at colleges and universities—bastions of abstract thought—scholars are closing the gap on what dogness means, both the far kind and the near. Not one but several dogs are barking at the foot of the ivory tower, and a friendly pack is scrambling up the stairs.
As the subject of human-animal interaction is now deemed worthy of serious scholarship, efforts to understand dogs in depth are emerging on college campuses around the world. It wasn’t that long ago that when one thought of dogs and research, shudder-inducing visions of laboratory animals with implanted electrodes came to mind. While some of that still exists, increasingly, scholars are focusing on the ethical treatment of animals, and taking a hard look at university practices along the way.
Another player in this fundamental shift was Marjorie Garber, the director of the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard, who published her book Dog Love a decade ago. Exploring the portrayal of dogs in film and literature, and the roles they play in American culture, her work signaled a trend in literature courses and seminars, and at national conferences in many humanities fields. Animals and dogs—as ideas and in reality—were suddenly ripe for exploration.
From Trend to Mainstream
Mangum, whose background is in 19th-century literature and who has a personal affinity for dogs, had found herself shifting in recent years to the ideas that concern us daily, and how those ideas show up in literature, providing a resonance and also a resource for rethinking common human problems. She began with Victorian literature on aging, and gradually became interested in the ways pets fit into human lives and begin to define us in new ways. Her article, “Dog Years, Human Fears” (Representing Animals 2002) considers the interplay of human anxieties about aging and the rise of middle-class pet culture. And in the course she taught as part of the Articulating the Animal project, she asked her students to analyze the stories humans tell about animals, both in literature and at the local animal shelter.
Mangum was interested in getting her students out of the classroom and into new “narrative zones,” and placed many of her students as volunteers with the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center under the direction of Misha Goodman. A county shelter first featured in Bark (“Being in Dog Time,” Fall 2005), it is a model among shelters around the country, having successfully reinvented itself as a humane, low-kill facility with an excellent reputation for both animal treatment and placement. The students got to know the staff and other volunteers, and spent time observing and actively working with the animals, relating what they learned to the rigorous course reading Mangum required. For their final project, they were asked to creatively interpret all that they had learned using a variety of media—film, video, visual works and essays. The hope was that these projects would also benefit the shelter itself, either as a way to educate more people about the mission of the organization or to orient volunteers to new ways of understanding their canine companions.
Donna Haraway, a noted theorist in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, also shifted her focus, from cyber-studies to dog culture. As the owner of a small pack of Australian Shepherds, Haraway found herself drawn to the issues of “breeding,” and how technology is poised to sort out canine genetics and cloning. At bottom, Haraway is interested in the affection we have for a particular look or kind of dog, and how it comes about:
…what might possibly be meant by love in a way that disrupts various romanticisms, troubles certain kinds of certainties about the relationship that we have with this other complex species, dogs, and perhaps leads us into a place I’ve tried to get throughout most of my work: that is, elsewhere.
In her most recent book, When Species Meet, Haraway continues to explore the philosophical underpinnings of our animal-human encounters—the ways that curiosity, respect and affection come to define how we treat one another. Haraway’s work echoes the exploration of canine human affection done by Garber, and has popularized the notion of a “companion species manifesto” to redefine dog and human interactions. The immediacy of exchange with the dogs in the lives of their professorial companions—their literal nearness—appears to inspire far-fetched and ground-breaking ideas.
For Teresa Mangum, the questions raised about dogs and animals began in series of discussions at a conference of 19th-century scholars whose research interests were mostly related to literature. In the late 1980s, these academics had witnessed the “sudden explosion of cultural studies … that challenged assumptions about how we see animals.” Harriet Ritvo, a professor of British history at MIT, published a seminal book, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age in 1987, which represented the culmination of those early discussions. Twenty years later, Deborah Denenholz Morse, professor at William and Mary College, edited the book Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Nineteenth-Century Literature (2007) with Martin A. Danahay of Brock University; included are many who were involved in those early dialogues: Mangum; Cannon Schmitt at the University of Toronto; Susan David Bernstein at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Nigel Rothfels, a history professor and director of the Edison Initiative at UW–Milwaukee.
Rothfels, whose historical interests are in zoos, circuses and elephants, spearheaded efforts to create a wider dialogue about animals among historians and professors of literature. He is currently working with Mangum to create a North American/UK critical animal studies biannual conference. “Nigel is a lynchpin in the ‘critical animal studies’ movement” Mangum says. “It was a crystallizing moment at a conference in Milwaukee he organized a few years ago, where we realized we all were seriously exploring similar ideas and were anxious for a forum in which to share them.” In the last two years, Rothfels has been at the University of Texas at Austin, which hosted a conference on “Animal Humanities” in April 2006, and at a 2007 York University conference, “Envisioning Animals.” Rothfel’s own book, Representing Animals (2002), included essays by Mangum and other key members of the original 19th-century literary group and is now a curriculum standard in many animal studies classes.
Around the same time, across the pond in the UK, Erica Fudge, a lecturer in English Literary Studies at Middlesex University, London, was creating her own curriculum in literature and animal studies. In the last few years, she has published a remarkable succession of scholarly books: Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (2002); Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures (2004); and Brutal Reasoning: Animals, Rationality, and Humanity in Early Modern England (2006). The topics showing up at conferences and in the number of new course offerings around the world made Fudge aware of how many other scholars were interested in similar subjects of animals in literature and science. As a member of H-Animal, a special section of the scholarly web zone H-Net (Humanities Network, h-net.org), she has been instrumental in fostering greater communication among colleagues around the world.
Companion Animals in Our Social World
While this may seem like a trivial pursuit, particularly to those who do not have pets, it may also be a study that eventually changes policies. Just a few years ago, many dogs now classified as “therapy pets” were excluded from on-board airline travel and most public places. In the United States and in universities abroad, the ways that dogs are being defined and their rights as individual creatures are under review. While it requires motivated citizens to affect local, national and global policy, it often takes university studies to support their goals. As Teresa Mangum found in her own animal seminar, the time is now particularly ripe to “examine how disciplinary definitions, associations, assumptions, distinctions, uses, fears, and fantasies about animals produce elaborate systems of meaning.”
Similarly, Haraway’s work has been influential in the Tokyo-based Companion Animal Information and Research Center begun by Dr. Yoichi Shoda, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. Shoda’s group is interested in how pets are allowed in, and interact with, the human social world. The shift in thinking from “pet owner and pet” to co-equal “companions” has been key to adjusting animal protection and management laws to allow dogs and cats in collective housing in Japan. Shoda is also exploring the conflict between the humans over their conduct or that of their pet; this was a focus at the 11th Annual International Conference on Human-Animal Interaction, which convened this fall in Tokyo.
At Colorado State University, Jerry Vaske and Maureen Donnelly, professors in CSU’s Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, are also looking at how dog interaction in shared open spaces is dependent on owner interaction. Negative traits in dogs—which, roughly translated, is “what bugs other humans about our dogs”—came down to owners not picking up after their dogs, dogs chasing wildlife, dogs jumping on and pawing visitors, and dogs flushing birds. The researchers then tailored a program, known as the Voice and Sight Tag Program, for the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) department. Willing dog owners participated by watching a video about voice- and sight-control commands, essential training for dogs in off-leash areas. Vaske and Donnelly’s research is part of widespread owner education about the sort of “social manners” necessary for shared turf; some public dog parks also now offer courses and certificates in “canine citizenship.”
A variety of researchers are pursuing the value of pets and animals in our lives. Dr. Gail F. Melson, professor emereta of psychology at Purdue University, studies pets in child development and is the author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children (2001). Dr. Andrea Beetz, an independent researcher from Germany, has researched the way empathy develops into attachment and the “emotional intelligence” within human–animal interactions. Richang Zheng, in the Department of Social Psychology at Beijing Normal University, is likewise doing research on companion animals in the context of the psychological health of the elderly, while in Australia, at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Dr. Bruce Headey, in a case study in China, is looking at how pets improve the health of their human companions.
Dog Thought/Dog Language
Budapest’s Eötvös University has a world-renowned program in which dog behavior is researched using methodology that is more anthropological than zoological in its approach. In this discipline, which has been dubbed ethology—the study of animal behavior—researchers treat their dogs as thinking individuals, and visit them on the dogs’ preferred turf—either at home with their human companions or out in nature. At the Eötvös campus lab, as Colin Woodard reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Research and Books (April 2005), “Canines have the run of the place, greeting visitors in the hall, checking up on faculty members in their offices, or cavorting with one another in classrooms overlooking the Danube River, six floors below.” Researchers led by Dr. Vilmos Csányi and Dr. Adam Miklosi have made significant breakthroughs in how dogs are perceived and in the subtleties of communication between dogs and their owners. Some of the Eötvös research focuses on the nonverbal ways we communicate right and wrong, and gesture approval and disapproval—how a slight movement of our eye or hand may give a dog clues in problem-solving.
The ways in which dogs have been “domesticated” have been also been rethought and reexamined at Eötvös through experiments raising dogs and wolves in equal controlled environments. Similar research is also being done at Harvard by Dr. Brian Hare, whose work with the “singing” dogs of New Guinea provides “direct evidence that that dogs’ lengthy contact with humans has served as a selection factor, leading to distinct evolutionary changes.” (Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, News and Notices)
Dr. Friederike Range and Dr. Ludwig Huber of the University of Vienna and Dr. Zsófia Viranyi of Eötvös University are focusing on the similarities between humans and dogs in the ways they copy one another’s actions, particularly when their respective physiques are so patently different. “Selective imitation” is a phrase that may seem foreign to us now, but then, so did “natural selection” a century and a half ago. As reported in Current Biology (May 15, 2007), these scientists have found that dogs not only imitate actions they see, but also, like human babies, “adjust the extent to which they imitate to the circumstances of the action.” They employ a basic reasoning in choosing which of our actions to mimic (not “ape”), with reference to the separate and somewhat abstract goal of the action.
Barbara Smuts, a world-renowned behavioral ecologist at the University of Michigan, was a keynote speaker at that seminal conference in Milwaukee a few years ago. Smuts began her research on primate societies, but in recent years, has devoted most of her attention to dog interaction and socialization. Her particular interest is in how dogs play, their signals and rules invented on the spot. With the assistance of her fellow researchers, she has developed an “ethogram,” or written description of each body movement and vocalization dogs use to initiate play with one another. In this complex version of game theory, the way the rules are drawn and how they change are based on complexities of canine dominance. Smuts has also found parallels between dogs and primates, which she explored in “Gestural Communication in Olive Baboons and Domestic Dogs,” published earlier this year in The Cognitive Animal (MIT Press).
Thus, the dialogue about dogs going on in academic circles is making its way into the mainstream in all sorts of ways, from courses attended and books written to extensive discussions, policy changes, traveling exhibitions and international conferences. We are abandoning old cultural prejudices and coming to a new understanding of dogs on their own terms, drawing on abstract literary stars in the sky and the waggy ones barking nearby. It is a welcome blend of theory and reality.
More to come! See Part Two, “Literary Dogs,” in the January/February 2008 issue.
Seeing Is Believing
June 16, 2008—August 18, 2008
The Animals Among Us
© 2007 D.L. Pughe
Culture: Stories & Lit
Second child means second chance for dog love.
NO ONE WOULD DREAM of asking a woman walking her dog: So, when are you going to have another one? There isn’t the presumption that a singleton dog is lonely, or will grow up with some terrible maladjustment, perhaps diagnosable,without another dog in the family.
I never felt committed to the demographic destiny of two-point-something children. One was not merely enough; one was extraordinary. Pushing my son around in his stroller, I chaperoned his love affair with every dog in the West Village. I learned that the desire to have long woofing and nibbling sessions animates all of us. He was wild about dogs, and I was wild about him.My life was good.
But now I do have a second child—a second boy— and I’ll admit that this replication is different in a profound way, far beyond having to double the Cheerios purchases or finding myself squished between a duet of car seats when we drive on a family vacation. True,with two children, we’ve cut the adult-child ratio in half and more than doubled the worry. But having another child also means a return to dog.
Even before my second son hit 12 months, he could make the sound of every animal. The horses, cows, frogs and, of course, the dogs…woof! In our home, the humans and the animals speak one language. There is one word for all joys and all desires, one affirmative to all questions. Are you hungry? Woof! Are you ready to get dressed? Woof! Shall we go outside? Woof! Woof packed with nuance and intonation.Woof packed with possibility.
And here we are, out for a walk, my second son and I.He’s got the super-power doggy radar of a one-year-old on, now scanning a 180-degree horizon of streetscape. The alert goes off: Ah woo woo woo woof! I look around, slowly, an adult reacting in turtle-time, and I see that yes, indeed, there is a dog down the block on the other side of the street, not barking, not racing, not straining against his leash, unlike my barking toddler who is about to burst out of his stroller straps.
Don’t you get it, Mom?
I shouldn’t be surprised. I’d been around the block on dog-watch before with my first son.Yet I am surprised to find myself behind the wheels of the stroller again, surprised to find myself the mother of a second boy hard-wired to love dogs.
I’ve realized that dogs don’t need training (or re-training) as much as I do; I’m the one who has trouble learning.Why have another baby? To remember dog.To see that dog can be new again even though you think you already know her. I had to have a second child so that the daily dog walk could be part of my life again.My second baby gives his heart away to every dog that comes along, in every shape and color; he loves them for being alive, for their very dogginess. He loves them unconditionally, before he’s even met them. Before he knows anything about their personality or their achievements, before he knows if they love children or are scared of hats, he loves them. Every encounter with dog is a chance for love at first sight.
My second son my second teacher my second dog-lover my second mommywhisperer: Smile, mom, don’t worry.We’re here together. Look, here comes a dog.
I used to think I could make the decision to have a dog when I was ready: when my family was ready, when we were older but not too old, out of diapers but not into college applications.When things would be going well between me and my husband and we could divvy up dog chores without a fight.When we’d live in a big enough space.When everything was ready, then the dog would be part of the picture.
And I waited. I waited so long to get the dog my older son wanted that suddenly— at least it seemed sudden—he no longer loved dogs. It happened sometime toward the end of his preschool years, or perhaps during kindergarten, while I was pregnant for the second time. My son grew afraid of dogs. If a dog approached us on the street, instead of dragging me up to greet the dog, he ran behind me so the dog wouldn’t see him—or so he wouldn’t see the dog, I’m not sure which.When did he begin to fear the thing he once loved most in all the world? When did he realize his great love might bite him? I wondered if he had been bitten, if I’d missed some traumatic event that had left him fearful. But I don’t think so; he outgrew trains and fire trucks and dogs (he still loves dinosaurs and big mammals, but he doesn’t run into too many of these on the street).
I didn’t miss the trains, or the fire trucks, but dogs…Looking for dogs had made going anywhere fun.You could see them on the way to the doctor for shots or on the way home from a funeral. I’d looked forward to meeting up with dogs even when I wasn’t with my son; just imagining how he’d respond had made me happy. And then it was all over—the whole dog show. No more woofing, no more waving, no more doggy radar. I still noticed dogs on the street, but I looked at them nostalgically, as if I’d lost my dog.
What I’d lost was my first baby, the baby who had a passion for dogs. I mourned his innocence and my own as a parent (and wondered if this was a little taste of what life would be like in his teen years, when I’d long for his boyhood). I missed dogs. I missed his joy. I missed seeing them kiss, dog plus baby, and getting a few slurpy licks myself. I had to shift into a different role: protecting him from dogs. Every time I saw a dog coming I had to assess whether it was old enough or reserved enough to pass us by without incident, or if it was too kid-friendly or too puppyish and might jump toward my son, reinforcing his fear. I caught a glimmer ofmy son’s uneasiness:He feared the unruliness of dogs, their unpredictability. And I had my own lesson in unpredictability, in the way time changes everything.
ONE DAY IN EARLY SPRING, I WAS OUT walking with my boys. The baby was in the stroller, and the big boy was helping me push. I wasn’t surprised to hear the dog alert go off—but it was from my older son! It was my big boy who saw the dog first, who shouted, “Look, there’s a dog!”with total delight, his fear forgotten. My big boy was seeing through the baby’s eyes, experiencing the baby’s doggy joy.
At that moment, there were three of us about to burst, two little hearts and one big one—the baby wanting his wet kiss; the big boy wanting to see the baby get all excited and happy; and me, big old mama dog, marveling at my brood, savoring the older one’s pleasure in the little one. While the big boy demonstrated how to pet the dog without pulling its hair, I gave a silent prayer of thanks.
I leaned down to stroke the dog myself, and I felt the electricity running through me: my big boy’s early dog love, his lost love, his renewed love, plus the baby’s new love, plus my own redoubled. We added up to so much more than three people loving a dog.
WHEN WE WERE A FAMILY OF THREE, I thought I knew myself, and my husband, and my son. I knew our family. I knew who we were as parents and who he was as a boy. I knew who I was (mom) and, when I gave birth again, who I’d become (mom2boys). But then comes a new baby who waves his tiny magic fist around and, presto, we are new, some other family. My husband isn’t who I thought he was, nor am I.My son is someone else, too. We are all angry, and tired, and cranky; sometimes serially, sometimes all of us at the same moment.Who is this man snapping at me, and why did I marry him? Who is that woman with my voice, snapping back? I can’t remember. And who is this older son of mine, who used to love dogs and used to love me, and now is so furious he kicks me, screams at me, throws tantrums the way he never did before? Baby toys that my big boy hasn’t looked at in years are suddenly hot property; they belong only to him and cannot possibly be touched by the baby. The baby nurses and the big boy wishes he could too, hates the little one for getting to nurse, hates himself for wanting something he’s been told he’s too old for…I am trying to embrace these people I don’t recognize, including myself, and it’s hard.
One morning, I’m out with the boys, and we’re counting dogs we pass on the way. This has become our new ritual, now that my big guy is happy to be out on the dog-watch with his baby bro. He thinks that Dog Number 8 is a Poodle. I don’t think so, I suspect it’s a Terrier, but I’m so happy he’s talking about dogs that I go along with the Poodle theory.
“I’ve heard that Poodles are really smart,” I say. “I’ve heard that they’re good animals to live with. Hey—would you like to have a dog?” I ask as nonchalantly as I can.
“No,”he answers.“I want a cat,not a dog.”
“We can’t have a cat,”I tell him,“because they make me sneeze.”
“I know,”he says.“That’s why I don’t like you.We can’t have a cat because of you.”
I don’t know how to repair my relationship with my first son. Can he ever forgive me? Can we ever begin to approximate the closeness, the seamlessness, we had before? Can I forgive myself? And will he ever completely outgrow his lingering fear of dogs?
The other day, a generous woman out walking her dog gave me the clue to navigating the street with one boy who loves dogs and one who fears them. If the dog’s tail is up and wagging, she’s happy to see you. If her tail is down, you don’t want to pet her or get close because she’s afraid and might bark or bite.
So here’s my hope: It will come to pass that we will all want a dog at the same time.That there will be a sign—tail up, tail down—telling me the moment is right, after my older son outgrows his fear and before my little one outgrows his passion. That I will be able to read my children and follow my heart.
Hummed or howled, tunes find a receptive audience.
YES, IT’S EMBARRASSING, but many people have the urge to sing to their canine companions. Don’t worry about it—it’s natural. In fact, singing to your dog can be a lot more fun than crooning to a baby or toddler. For one thing, your dog will never develop the capacity for irony or satirical thinking so annoying in humans, so any stupid or caustic lyrics you make up won’t be understood. And your doggie will never fling these songs back to you in a family counseling session, or years later as you lie on your death bed.
The guidelines for satisfying canineoriented singing are not stringent, but you might want to consider a few strategies for making the most out of your warbling sessions with your pet.
>When choosing a name for your pooch, consider making it five letters. This enables you to use the famous song B-I-N-G-O as the base melody for special songs you can make up for your dog. For example, my new dog’s name is Nimby. I really didn’t choose it for that reason (long story—he’s named after a fairy character I created for my daughter), but WOW, what a boon! And Nimby was his name-o!
>Dig back into your past and find the songs you really enjoyed performing as a child, including perennial chestnuts such as Old MacDonald Had a Farm (for which you can substitute the repeating verses with a BARK BARK here, or a GROWL GROWL there…)
>Never underestimate the power of a narrative song, such as Little Rabbit Foo-Foo. For the uninitiated (bless you), Little Rabbit Foo-Foo is an involved tale about a little bunny who seems to go into the forest, where he scoops up all the field mice and inexplicably bops them on the head. And then a fairy descends—well, you kind of get the warped idea. So you only need to substitute your dog’s name, and perhaps his prey of choice (squirrels? moles?), and you have the makings of a really fascinating song.
>Classic folk songs are great. Consider the ballad John Henry, one version of which reads, “When John Henry was a little baby, sitting on his papa’s knee…” Think how wonderfully you can put your dog’s name in there: “When Mortimer was a little puppy, sucking on his mommy’s teat…” >Don’t discount the standards. You can adapt Cole Porter or George Gershwin pretty well to doggies. Consider “I’ve got you under my fur…” or “I get a bite out of you…” Or how about Irving Berlin? “God bless my doggie girl/Pup that I LOVE!!!/Stand beside her, and guide her…”
Well, these are merely guidelines. You must constantly look for inspiration in every facet of your past and present life—old Girl and Boy Scout songs and commercial jingles (gum, SpaghettiOs, Pepto-Bismol, late-night carpet advertisements, mnemonic bank lyrics, cereal ditties). Finding a suitable tune and putting your dog’s name into it, along with, perhaps, a few choice lyrics, is really the auditory equivalent of paint-by-numbers.
Singing to your dog is one of life’s simple pleasures. Just remember that, should you be caught doing it, you’ll have to act as though you’re warming up for choir practice. Once, someone came upon me as I was doing show tunes geared to my dog down at our community garden, and I had to pretend that I was an American Idol contestant.
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.
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