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Culture: Stories & Lit
Scary Math
What are the odds the past and the present will collide on a Manhattan street?
Scary Math

Jasper gets four walks a day. At 30 minutes each, he is on the road two hours daily, 14 hours per week, or 728 hours per year—equivalent to the month of April—with either Mike or me on the other end of the leash.

Given the math, it was odd that I would ask Mike to join us on one of my assigned walks that Sunday evening. But Mike’s mother had died the previous weekend and a code orange terror alert, warning financial institutions of an impending strike, had attracted swarms of cops to our United Nations neighborhood. We gravitated toward the security that only our little pack, in its completeness of three, could provide.

Neither of us was alarmed when a young man with tattoos and a shaved head sliced his way through a group of tourists in pursuit of Jasper, because Jasper, after all, is an 18-pound hottie.

Those who remember the “Thin Man” series call him Asta. In my opinion, Jasper, with his intense dark eyes, more sharply resembles a cleaned-up Colin Farrell. Reason enough, I figure, not to have argued with a woman who recently insisted that he looked just like me.

“Don’t tell me,” the hipster said. “That’s a Lakeland Terrier.”

I grinned, unimpressed.

“I had one once,” he said.

I dropped my guard. The odds of meeting someone with actual Lakeland experience are slim, like discovering a WMD in Times Square. I hope.

“They’re impossible to find. Where did you get him?” he asked.

“Pennsylvania,”Mike volunteered.

Mike did, indeed, find Jasper. I had been the holdout. Since I grew up on a farm, the combination of “city” and “dog” made no sense to me. Mike, on the other hand,
is from Manhattan, the land of leash laws, doggie day care centers and sit-down “bark” mitzvahs.

“Pennsylvania?” the hipster said. “I had a Lakeland from Pennsylvania.”

“We got him from this guy who breeds, of all things, Lakeland Terriers and Great Danes,”Mike said.“His name is M. J.…”

“…Cohen,” the hipster completed.

“Yes,”Mike said.

“I got a puppy a couple of years ago from him. Weird, huh?”

We nodded. Weird.

“Had to give him up though,” he shrugged, “for work.”

The only way I could imagine giving up Jasper would be in a Sophie’s Choice moment of desperation. When Mike returned from his mother’s side for the last time a week earlier and collapsed, exhausted by the weight of her illness, Jasper, in an atypically affectionate move, jumped squarely upon his chest and began to lick his face. Proving that dogs often know what to do when people do not.

The hipster bent down to Jasper, but his girlfriend remained standing. She studied Jasper, carefully.

And then I did the math.

The hipster said that he got a puppy two years ago. Mike and I got Jasper one year ago…shortly after his first birthday. My ears buzzed, but not from the hovering helicopters. How had threats of terror, about which I could do nothing, blinded me to the clear and present danger crouched before me on the street, intimately caressing my dog’s ears?

I considered the options. I could: (1) remain silent and pray to be wrong; (2) make a preemptive strike, grab Jasper and run; or, (3) blow our cover.

“I think this little guy was yours,” I said, blowing our cover.

“Jasper?”Mike said.

“You still call him Jasper?” the hipster asked.

I wondered if option two was still available.

“Well, of course,”Mike said.“He’ll always be Jasper. We could never change that.”

The hipster’s girlfriend looked nervously from the hipster to Mike. “This is weird,” she repeated. “He looks so different. I didn’t recognize him at first.”

Define “so different,” I thought, giving her the look.

The breeder had said that Jasper’s original owner was a photographer who had lived in New York before taking an assignment abroad.

“Oh, little buddy,” the hipster said. Jasper wagged his tail.Now I gave Jasper the look.

Mike and I had often imagined a version of this scene—the “deranged-birthfather- who-stalks-us-for-months-before- eventually-abducting-Jasper” scenario—in vivid, apocalyptic detail. Looking down upon the two of them, however, the hipster did not appear to be a dognapper.

Which could also mean that he was a very clever dognapper.

“It must have been so hard to give him up,” I said. The schmaltz was involuntary at this point.

The angle of the hipster’s head kept the tears pooled in his eyes until he stood and looked down at Jasper before gazing into the distance.

My grip tightened on Jasper’s leash.

“You guys have done a great job with him,” he said, finally.“He’s very happy.”

The hipster was not happy. He extended his hand to each of us. I said nothing in fear of suggesting visitation rights. He and his girlfriend continued down the street. Jasper did not put up a fuss, thank god.

Mike and I reached the end of the block before either one of us dared to look at the other, before we spoke and turned around, slowly, to see if the hipster was following us.

Culture: Reviews
Canine Massage in Plain English
Clean Run Productions, $19.95

Kudos to Winter and the publisher for putting together this absolutely clear and well-illustrated book.Not only is it functional, but, with its more than 125 color photos and clean layout, it’s also attractive and fun to read. As its subtitle—Taking the Mystery Out of Massaging Your Dog —proclaims, it gives us the tools we need to help our dogs relax and feel better. Give your dog a full-body massage or, if time prohibits, a quick pick-me-up. The information is presented step-by-step in sections, so you can choose what works for the specific situation literally at hand.

Culture: Stories & Lit
A Dog’s Tale

My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian. This is what my mother told me; I do not know these nice distinctions myself. To me they are only fine large words meaning nothing. My mother had a fondness for such; she liked to say them, and see other dogs look surprised, and envious, as wondering how she got so much education. But indeed it was not real education, it was only show; she got the words by listening in the dining room and drawing room when there was company, and by going with the children to Sunday school and listening there; and whenever she heard a large word she said it over to herself many times, and so was able to keep it until there was a dogmatic gathering in the neighborhood, then she would get it off and surprise and distress them all, from pocket-pup to mastiff, which rewarded her for all her trouble.

If there was a stranger he was nearly sure to be suspicious; and when he got his breath again he would ask her what it meant. And she always told him. He was never expecting this, but thought he would catch her; so when she told him, he was the one that looked ashamed, whereas he had thought it was going to be she. The others were always waiting for this, and glad of it and proud of her, for they knew what was going to happen, because they had had experience. When she told the meaning of a big word they were all so taken up with admiration that it never occurred to any dog to doubt if it was the right one; and that was natural, because, for one thing, she answered up so promptly that it seemed like a dictionary speaking, and for another thing, where could they find out whether it was right or not? for she was the only cultivated dog there was.

By and by when I was older, she brought home the word Unintellectual, one time, and worked it pretty hard all the week at different gatherings, making much unhappiness and despondency; and it was at this time that I noticed that during that week she was asked for the meaning at eight different assemblages and flashed out a fresh definition every time, which showed me that she had more presence of mind than culture, though I said nothing, of course. She had one word which she always kept on hand and ready, like a life-preserver, a kind of emergency-word to strap on when she was likely to get washed overboard in a sudden way—that was the word Synonymous.

When she happened to fetch out a long word which had had its day weeks before and its prepared meanings gone to her dump-pile, if there was a stranger there of course it knocked him groggy for a couple of minutes, then he would come to, and by that time she would be away down the wind on another tack and not expecting anything; so when he’d hail and ask her to cash-in, I (the only dog on the inside of her game) could see her canvas flicker a moment—but only just a moment—then it would belly out taut and full and she would say as calm as a summer’s day, “it’s synonymous with supererogation” or some godless long reptile of a word like that, and go placidly about and skim away on the next tack perfectly comfortable, you know, and leave that stranger looking profane and embarrassed and the initiated slatting the floor with their tails in unison, and their faces transfigured with a holy joy.

Culture: DogPatch
Finding Farley
A young family undertakes a cross-Canada adventure to visit literary legend, Farley Mowat.
Finding Farley

In 2007, with their two year- old son Zev and pup Willow in tow, the couple undertook a third excursion, this time to see the venerable writer and environmentalist, Farley Mowat. Heuer has said that it was through Mowat’s books—Owls in the Family, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, Never Cry Wolf and A Whale for the Killing among them—that he learned about Canadian wildlife and threats to it, as well as gained a better understanding of his country.

When Mowat extended an invitation to visit him and his wife Claire at their Cape Breton farm, the couple—along with Zev and Willow—literally launched themselves on what turned out to be a five-month trans-Canadian odyssey, setting off by canoe from their home in Canmore, Alberta, and following a route that took them through the settings of some of Mowat’s iconic stories. From this, Allison created a feature-length documentary, Finding Farley, and Heuer is working on a book of the same name.

In 2005, we talked with Heuer about his Yellowstoneto- Yukon (Y2Y) trek, and when we learned that he had made yet another incredible dogenhanced journey—with a two-year-old child, no less— we made it a point to find out more.

Bark: On your 1998 Y2Y expedition, you were accompanied by Webster, a Border Collie mix. Is Willow his successor?
Karsten Heuer: There was a bit of an overlap. When Webster was about 13, he started to deteriorate cognitively; the vet described it as canine dementia. We knew his time was limited, but we really weren’t thinking about getting another dog while he was alive. Willow kind of came into our lives rather than us searching her out. At the time, we were living in a fairly remote part of British Columbia, surrounded by mountains; Willow was part of a litter born on a nearby farm. One day, a friend dropped by with her dog and this sixweek- old puppy. We went walking with Webster and her dog, and we’re holding the puppy, who’s nuzzling inside our jackets. Before we knew it, she was ours. She chose us rather than us choosing her, but it worked out well. Poor Webster was kind of overwhelmed by this puppy, who was constantly grabbing onto his tail and whatnot. But he was very tolerant.

B: How does Willow compare to Webster as a trail partner?
KH: They’re quite different characters. Webster was very mellow for a Border Collie—unbelievably quiet and very patient. Though he was active, he could also just lie down for hours. Whereas Willow, partly because she’s younger but also because she’s just wired differently, is high strung, with more typical Border Collie traits.

B: What kind of relationship does your son Zev have with Willow?
KH: The two of them are about the same age. We acquired Willow about the time Zev was born, and they’re very familiar with each other. I think it’s great for a baby or young child to grow up with an animal. Like most small children, Zev needed to learn how to interact with Willow, and she taught him a few lessons in respectful behavior.

B: In retrospect, what would you say was the primary benefit of traveling as you did?
KH: Leanne, Zev, Willow and I were together 24 hours a day within the very close confines of a canoe and a tent, in every kind of mood and weather. Zev was so intuitive and instinctual, in tune with his true animal nature. At the time, it was hard to see what he was getting out of it, but now, we notice that he has a sense for movement on water and a tolerance for the elements that he wouldn’t otherwise have; he understands that being wet or cold is temporary. Ultimately, the trip built an incredible foundation of shared experience that we constantly draw upon, whether through memories or what we learned or the people we met.

B: From the philosophical to the practical, tell us how you taught Willow to ride in the canoe, and how she occupied her time while she was in it.
KH: We didn’t actually teach her. Even to this day, she’s a little bit nervous in the boat, but she had a vested interest in staying with us, and as the trip went on, she settled down. All of us did, really. We’d been on a few day trips together but none of that was any benefit when we set out to “find” Farley. The routine with Willow was that she would hop aboard as we were leaving shore, then try to get as close to the front as possible—sometimes hilariously so. She’d have all four paws on the tiny front deck and be balancing precariously on the gunnels of the boat, leaning as far forward as possible. Then we’d find a more workable location for her, usually atop the load amidships. If there were waves, she’d get excited, leaning over the edge of the canoe and snapping at the water. She’d also snap at flies and mosquitoes; when bumblebees came by, she’d badger them, then go flying off the boat—she’d fall in, not purposefully jump in. We discovered that she’s a pretty amazing swimmer. Sometimes, when we were in appropriate areas—on public land and when birds weren’t nesting on the shoreline— we’d put her onshore for a bit of a run. She’d lope along, glancing back at us and watching us come down the river. Then she’d choose a good spot and swim out to us, and I’d haul her back onboard.

B: What would you say was the most challenging aspect of the trip? KH: Managing Willow and Zev. They’d be clambering around—he’d be stepping on her or she’d be stepping on him. Sometimes all Leanne and I wanted was just some peace and quiet, but that wasn’t usually an option. The bugs were another challenge. When the flies got bad, we couldn’t do much for Willow. Some of the travel arrangements were also an issue. For the maritime section— 30 hours from one land mass to the next—we lucked upon a perfect guy who was willing to take us on board. He was a total dog lover and didn’t object to having Willow on his ship, or to the accommodations we felt she needed. We made little bouquets of spruce branches and grass and left them in out-of-the way places so Willow would have something familiar to go on if she needed to.

B: Were you surprised by anything that Willow did?
KH: One thing that particularly impressed me was the role Willow assumed as Zev’s guardian. We didn’t train her to do that, she just took it upon herself. For example, on occasion, Leanne and I had to portage the canoe past rapids; we’d put Zev down in the safest place we could find, and Willow, of her own free will, would park herself right alongside him. They were never out of our sight, but we were sometimes many hundreds of meters away, and that was bear country. Willow’s a Border Collie crossed with a livestock guardian dog, so she has some of those guarding attributes along with her herding instinct.

B: Did having Willow along enhance the trip in other ways?
KH: Dogs really enrich the experience of these sorts of trips. Besides companionship, which is high on the list, their senses are much wilder and more acute than our own. They’re able to alert us to things we wouldn’t otherwise see, smell or hear. Willow was also a great early-warning system. One night, we were inside the tent and heard Willow growling. I looked outside and there was a black bear rooting through our stuff. We chased him off before he got into our food. Since we were about six weeks from our next cache of supplies, it would’ve been pretty serious if he’d cleaned us out.

B: How would you compare the Y2Y experience and this trip?
KH: Y2Y was completely different, partly because I was on foot most of the time rather than in a boat, but largely because I was usually alone with Webster. Those quiet, pensive moments that we all kind of imagine happen in the wilderness are rare with a two-year-old around. You find your mind drifting for half a second and then you’re pulled up by an emergency. On the Y2Y trip, I felt like I could go deep. On this expedition, I had a few of those moments, but they were infrequent.

B: Tell us about Farley and dogs.
KH: Throughout his life, from his first dog, Mutt, Farley’s had at least one dog— he’s just crazy about them. He mentioned that he has some unfinished manuscripts; one involves a Lab, Albert, who was apparently a great water dog. His current dog is named Chester, and Farley was always speaking to Willow on Chester’s behalf. Chester was mildly interested in Willow, but much more interested in Zev. At the beginning of the trip, we got quite a bit of media. One of the stories was a front-page article with a color photo. We sent him the clipping along with a letter to let him know we were off. We’d been exchanging letters for a few months before the trip, but he didn’t know what any of us—including Willow—looked like. In his next letter to us, which we couldn’t pick up until we reached Saskatchewan six weeks later, Farley said Willow reminded him of Mutt. “This could be the dog that would be,” he said.

B: What’s next? Are there more “incredible journeys” on the horizon?
KH: Our trips have all come about pretty organically—we tend toward experiences that have good stories and promote causes we believe in. Essentially, these longer trips are part of who we are. So we’re not searching out new ones, but if a good opportunity presents itself, we’re open to it.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Devotion

My wife finished her first set of chemotherapy in 2002. They were aggressive drugs, and Genie fought hard. In the spring, cancer’s grip was finally broken. We thought we could rest easy.

Then something odd occurred, something cold.

Cancer took Wylie, our first sweet dog, the summer of 2002. Cancer took Ruby, our tall red dog, the following year. And when Jackson — a bigger, stronger dog — died a few years later, he too was riddled with cancer. Our first three. Gone.

They had all stayed by Genie’s side — as close as close can be — as she battled cancer in 2001 and into 2002. As jumbled and full of distractions as that period of time was, their eyes never lost sight of Genie.

Is it possible, as Genie and I believe, that they took on Genie’s cancer so that she might live?

I know — too dramatic, too outlandish. No way could that be. Besides, cancer isn’t contagious. Good point, I guess.

There are few things any of us know with certainty.

I know a few things. Dogs are funny. They aren’t selfish. They are loyal. They ask no questions. They never doubt. They stand by our side as the world spins, as the world darkens, as the winds howl.

Sometimes you wonder why. Is it merely because we house them, pet them, feed them? Or is it something more? Could it be something more?

We speak of devotion when we speak of people. There are devoted people, and people in blissful love. What a beautiful thing, devotion. And how sweet deep love, which leads to devotion. It’s what we all want out of life — to be loved. To have someone there when darkness falls, and to warm us when it turns cold, as the world does from time to time.

The thing about people is that sometimes they hesitate. They may come around, they may love, they may be devoted, but, sometimes, maybe for only a fraction of a second, they’ll hesitate when times turn tough. They’ll blink.

Dogs don’t hesitate. They stand by our side, no matter the odds, the reason, the depth of cold. If we step into the blackest of nights, they step with us, and sometimes — most of the time — they take the first step.

And no matter their size — from the smallest to the largest — they’ll do what needs to be done to safeguard their human companion — their friend — even if it means giving their life. They don’t weigh the odds, or ask any questions. Dogs are selfless.

Maybe Genie and I are luckier than some, but we’ve known a number of devoted dogs.

We’ve seen three fall to cancer. Yes, I don’t know for certain that they took on Genie’s cancer so that she might live. But from the depths of my heart, that’s what I believe. They loved Genie that much, that’s what I know. And here’s one more thing: If they bought her but a mere minute more of life and time, they’d be happy.

I’ve seen and touched and felt such tremendous love.

Devotion. A truer sounding word I can’t name.

Culture: DogPatch
In Conversation with Justine van der Leun
Author of Marcus of Umbria

We talk with Justine van der Leun about her new book Marcus of Umbria—a Bark Summer Reads pick. Deciding to leave the big city and a good magazine job, she packs it all in to live in a very small Italian village and a chance at love. What she finds instead, and where she finds it, makes for charming storytelling.

Bark: What compelled you to leave your NY city life and venture out to a (very) small village in Italy? And why that particular village?

Justine van der Leun: For love, of course! Or perhaps lust is more accurate. I had gone to Collelungo, on vacation, and while I was there, I fell helplessly for a local gardener named Emanuele. The stereotype of the seductive Italian exists for a reason. After just three weeks, I wanted to live with him in his tiny, rural town. I was working with a businessman on a memoir about Italian wine, so it was convenient for me to settle there. I returned to New York, sublet out my place, and booked a one-way ticket back.

B: What was the one thing that surprised you the most about the villagers’ attitudes towards animals? Had you expected that?

J: Collelungo was an ancient farming culture and the people had endured centuries of dire poverty. Though this generation is relatively comfortable, the people of Collelungo, like most farming cultures, have an old-world approach to animals. For them, animals are a means of survival. They raise everything by hand—the opposite of factory farming. Because of this, farm animals like sheep, cows, and pigs roam free on untouched land. On the other hand, horses were for casual sport, and the training techniques were, to say the least, not progressive; and cats were feral and expected to fend for themselves. Dogs were caged out back and used to hunt. The idea of having a dog inside disgusted people. In Collelungo, there was little concept of an animal’s emotional life; the mere idea was absurd to them. But even in that society, there were exceptions: People who adored their dogs; who spoiled their horses; who fed and coddled kittens.

B: Marcus is a English Pointer, a dog with an “intense” connection to everything around her, how did she redefine or refocus your own connection to nature?

J: Marcus changed everything. I’ve been watching her stalk and chase birds and bunnies and squirrels for four years now, and it never gets old. Before I met Marcus, I had no relationship with the outside world. I grew up in rural Connecticut, surrounded by natural beauty, but all I wanted was to read indoors and move to New York City. But once I found Marcus in Italy, I began to walk in the woods, to look at the trees, to climb hills and ride horses. At first, I did it to see her joy, but soon I was able to feel my own joy. Now, even though we’re back in the states, I am nearly unrecognizable to myself: I run with Marcus in the morning, hike with her through parks and forests, take long strolls down the beach. We just spent a day canoeing on the Delaware Water Gap. I see nature from her perspective, as something right and necessary.

B: Since you rehabilitated a dog who was kept (if you can call it that) just for sport and had little human contact outside of the hunt, what affect did this have on you? Did it change how you viewed the human/dog bond? Did it alter your view of different cultures and how they treated their animals?

J: I rehabilitated Marcus with the help of a very generous behavioral therapist named Nikki Wood, whom I called crying when I returned to the States. I was at a loss for how to live with Marcus, who, because she lacked socialization and had been mistreated, trembled and ran whenever she saw a stranger or heard a loud noise. Nikki sensed that Marcus and I had a special connection and agreed to work with us as long as I would put in the effort. Did I ever! Training Marcus for nearly two years, I got a crash course in dog-human interaction. We think we know about our dogs, but we’re really so uninformed. I read all of Patricia McConnell’s books and really delved into the brain and heart of the dog, which was fascinating. I still have much to learn, but my new, more intricate understanding of her has really bonded us. I’ve seen such tremendous improvement in Marcus, who has overcome most of her fears. She will never be that super-confident dog with a great puppyhood, but she can now accomplish nearly anything. She’s more resilient than I could have imagined.

B: You weren’t expecting to meet up with the dog-of-your-heart when you went to Italy. If Marcus hadn’t come along, how differently do you think your experience there would have been? Would you have come home sooner or later? Do you think you could have settled there permanently?

J: I would have been home in two months, and that would have been a shame. I was wildly lonely and unfocused at first, living in such a remote foreign place. My relationship with Emanuele wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep me there. But when I found Marcus, I couldn’t leave her. Her existence also made me wonder what other surprises lay in store for me—and there were many! Marcus acted as my unwitting anchor and my little spotted tour guide. Because of her, I had the most illuminating year of my life so far.

 

Culture: Reviews
Scent of the Missing
Love & Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog

With so many new books making their way to my desk, there is a special one to recommend—Scent of the Missing: Love & Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog, a memoir by Susannah Charleson. Readers ride along with Charleson’s canine partner, Puzzle, a rambunctious, delightful and very smart Golden Retriever, from the moment the pup enters her life and through her training. With wit, charm and a deep understanding of dogs, Charleson’s story about her dog, and their long road together towards a fully collaborative partnership, is a revelation and joy. Look for an excerpt in our next issue!

Culture: Stories & Lit
On Responsibility
Caring for two loves

I am not responsible for much. I do not have children who have to get to school on time and wear matching shoes and be taught the difference between right and wrong. I do not have a job in which the well being of a company or the safety of the nation or the health of anyone at all is resting on my shoulders. I have a couple of plants I must remember to water. I make a point of paying my taxes on time. I take care of myself, but that’s not worth mentioning. I pitch in and help all sorts of people when I can, but they are people who could find the same help elsewhere if I went on vacation. When I think of who I am responsible for, truly responsible for, the list whittles down to my dog and my grandmother, and it just so happens that last week they were both sick.

Rose is white with ginger ears and an extremely alert tail. She weighs 17 pounds even though she should probably weigh 16. She had some angry-looking lesions on her pink belly that made me take her to the vet two months ago. I gave her the assigned antibiotics wrapped in cream cheese or peanut butter, depending on what was around. But the inflammation lingered and then flared, exacerbated by Rose’s very focused licking, and I decided we should go back and try again. I had heard there was a dog dermatologist in town with a three-month waiting list, but decided to give my regular vet another try. I’m quite certain I wouldn’t go to the dermatologist if I had pimples on my stomach and so I don’t see why I should make my dog go either.

My grandmother is 94, a mere 13 in dog years. She lives in an assisted-living facility three miles from my house and four blocks from my vet. Sometimes I take her with us to the vet, even though it is a lot to navigate a scared dog and a mostly blind, very confused grandmother into the waiting room. Still, she likes the excitement of barking, the snuffling dogs, the chance to comfort Rose, who is inevitably trembling with her head pressed beneath my grandmother’s arm. Rose doesn’t like the vet, which would be a point too obvious to include were it not for the fact that my mother’s cat worships his trips to doctor. They are his 15 minutes of fame. He purrs for hours after coming home at the mere thought of having received so much attention.

“It’s okay,” my grandmother tells Rose and rubs her ears. “Nobody’s going to eat you.”

But Rose, for all her incalculable wisdom, is still a dog and we cannot reassure her that something really hideous isn’t about to happen. Maybe she does think that an enormous and drooling animal is waiting to chew her up behind the door of examining room number three. She vibrates in her fear, tucking her head down and her hindquarters in until she is the size of a grapefruit. How can I explain that this was all for the good, that I would never leave her here, that I would protect her with the same passion with which she protects me from the UPS and FedEx trucks? We have such a language between us, Rose and I, but in this case it fails us and all I can do is pet and pet.

My grandmother has said her leg was sore all week. There was a bruise behind her knee, a funny place for a bump, and so my mother and I kept an eye on it. As soon as my mother flew off for her vacation, I received a phone call from the assisted-living nurse. My grandmother needed to go to the doctor, immediately.

“Are we going to your house?” my grandmother said, once I had wrestled her and her suddenly useless, painful leg into my car.

“We’re going to the hospital,” I told her. “The doctor needs to see your leg.”

“My leg is fine,” she said.

“It’s fine because you’re sitting down. Do you remember it hurting before?”

“My leg doesn’t hurt,” she said.

Her leg is blowing up like a summer storm, dark as an eggplant now across the back and getting green in the front. Her skin feels tight and hot. How did it get so bad so fast? The doctor said her blood was too thin. She’s had a bleed into her leg, which is better than a clot, and was admitted to the hospital.

If twenty minutes in the vet’s office can turn my bounding, snarling, terrier mutt into a cowering grapefruit, three days in the hospital would cast my sweetly confused grandmother down into the bottom circles of dementia.

“Where are we?’ she asked.

“In the hospital.”

“Are you sick?”

“No,” I said, leaning over to lightly tap her leg. “You have a sore leg.”

“I’ve been here before.”

“A long time ago.”

“There weren’t all these pots and pans then,” she said. “Not so many red squirrels.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“Where are we now?”

“Still in the hospital.”

“Do you feel sick?”

And so we went on in our circle, hour after hour. We had stepped outside of the routine we knew and found ourselves in a place where language was utterly useless. Still, we could not stop talking, the same way I talked to Rose while we waited for the vet. “It’s okay. I’m right here. You’re a beautiful dog. There was never such a good and beautiful dog as you.” I whisper to her over and over again while I pet.

I could not call Rose and tell her I was at the hospital, and I could not leave. IVs can get pulled out much quicker than they can be put back in; I had already found this out. Every five minutes my grandmother swung her feet to the floor. “Let’s go now.”

I picked them up and put them back in her bed. “You aren’t supposed to walk.”

“Where are we?” she asked.

Is it wrong to tell a story about your grandmother and your dog in which their characters become interchangeable? My sense of protectiveness for the two of them is fierce. They love me, and because their love is all they have to give, it seems especially pure. I love them too, but my love manifests itself in food, medical care, rides in the car, grooming. On Saturdays, I bring my grandmother home and give her lunch, and she always claims to be too full to finish her sandwich so that she can give half of it to Rose, who does not get sandwiches at other times, especially not straight from the table. I look the other way when my grandmother whispers to my dog, “Don’t worry. She doesn’t see us.”

My grandmother longs to have the ability to spoil someone again. My dog is the one mammal left who is unconditionally thrilled by her company. I wash my grandmother’s hair in the kitchen sink after the dishes are done and Rose sits in her lap while I blow it dry and pin it up in a twist. Sometimes, when I’ve finished with my grandmother’s hair, I’ll wash Rose in the sink and use the same damp towel to rub her dry. Then they lie down on the couch together and fall asleep, exhausted by so much cleanliness.

Back in the hospital, I cover my grandmother up with a white blanket.

“Your little dog sure did give me the cold shoulder,” she said, her voice full of hurt.

“What?”

“She didn’t even come over and say hello.”

“Rose isn’t here,” I told her. “We’re in the hospital.”

My grandmother’s eyes move slowly from the window to the door, then back again. “Oh,” she said, glad to know she was wrong. She takes the white blanket up in her hands.

Three days later, my grandmother went home, her leg still sore but stable. I have told her she was in the hospital, but she doesn’t believe me.

Rose, on the other hand, remembers her antibiotic. After dinner she sits in front of the counter where the bottle is kept, wagging her tail. She thinks only of the cream cheese, not the medicine, because she knows that part of it is my responsibility.

Culture: Stories & Lit
The Dogs Go Too
Blue jeans, blue grass and faithful friends

I’m sorry to tell you, sweet girl, but I might be a writer. I might be a writer who, on occasion, squirms into a tweed jacket and gives a quick reading. I might be a writer who goes to dinner parties and laughs loudest and can sometimes tell the difference between syrah and merlot (not really, but I’m full of bull). I might lift my glass into the light and I might sniff the cork. I might be a writer who will teach his students why plot does and does not matter; why character means more than anything; and why, if I’m honest, I don’t care what they write about as long as they get a bang out of it and I don’t get fired. I’m also in debt, drink too much, don’t have health insurance and ask strangers inappropriate questions on a regular basis. Lately, I’m thinking I should stop using the word might. You should know, sweet girl, I might even be a writer with dogs.

Just last month I picked up an abandoned pile of wiggling mud from the middle of the street and took her home. I gave her a bath and let the vet fill her full of antibiotics. Now it seems I have a puppy who looks exactly like a raccoon had sex with a fox. She has a bandit’s mask, a puffy cinnamon mane and a black stripe that starts at the nape of her neck and ends at the tip of her tail. She has a white swirl on her chest and ears like a wolf. I named her Zuppa for how much she looks like the espresso-and-mocha-soaked pound cake dessert you and I shared on our first night out. I named her Zuppa so that we would both be reminded of sitting across from one another and smiling wide when we realized how good espresso and mocha could be when it’s soaked up by pound cake and topped with whipped cream. I also tasted spiced rum and amaretto, and when I watched you lick the whipped cream off your lips, it was the closest I’ve ever been to attaining enlightenment. It made me a little sorry that the man you were looking at was me.

Blue, a 13-year-old Border Collie mix, is my first love. Blue knows her left from right, the difference between the Packway Handle Band, Grass Town and Seldom Seen, and has convinced more than one female police officer to let me off with a warning. She is made happy by the sound of her own bark; embarrassed by her own farts; and if I am anxious and stressed, apt to tell me she loves me with an empathetic barf. No one believes it, but Blue knows how to give me a wink if I say something worth listening to.
 
I have dogs and a pick-up, sweet girl. No sports car, no luxury sedan. Not even an eco-friendly hybrid or an electric or anything that runs on corn oil. And when I’m in my truck, it’s blue jeans and bluegrass and baseball caps. It’s sneaking cigarettes and a pint of scotch in the glove box. Sorry, sweet girl. When I’m in my truck, I can roll up my sleeves, keep a hammer on the floorboard, eat three cheeseburgers and drink all the full-strength cokes I want.
 
But most important, when I’m in my truck I can bring my dogs. Real live dogs. Not the idea of a dog, and not some metaphorical construction. But the flesh and bone and bug-filled fur. Most of all, a soundly thumping heart. In the truck, I’m not some stuffy writer pretending to love dogs because he knows he’s supposed to; I’m just a guy on the road with his mutts. Some guy with a sorry-looking beard and a pick-up truck and a crazy-eared half-human, half-canine stretching her head out the window, snapping at flies and anything else that might drift into range.
 
The thing about dogs, love, is that they change you. It can be a subtle thing, like a voice the person conjures when talking to a dog. A sudden shift from stodgy business lip to smoldering tones and indulgent cooing. Or it can be a full-body transformation. A lightning bolt through the nervous system that sets your Soggy Susan neighbor into jiggly fits of: Who’s a cute girl? Who’s the cutest? And: That’s okay! Your Auntie Susan doesn’t mind a little mud on her skirt! Don’t fight it, sweet girl. They change you for the better.
 
The only place I go where they don’t allow dogs is the library. It’s worth it for the reading, but oh how it kills me. I know the dogs are taking turns barfing on my bed and wondering just who I think I am, and I’ll tell you, some days I’m not at all sure. It is at the library that a writer should really feel at ease. But not me. No, just a quick reading stop now and then and that’s about all I have the strength for. I need the dogs more than I need the books. That’s for certain. I think I might enjoy playing the part of being a writer more than actually being one. So, sure, I go to the library, but if they would just allow dogs, well then, I’d be a changed man.
 
When I’m in my truck, it’s a time machine. Blue jumps in and sits up like a person (because she is, dammit) on the front seat with her nose to the wind. Zuppa is still a puppy, so she curls into a sleepy ball on the floorboard, exhausted from her daily wrestling match with the neighbors’ cat. And me, I’m traveling backward full tilt, to a time before all this writing. A time before all this man-made stress and man-made worry—AND NO libraries! Right now I’m about 19, sneaking cigarettes, eating cheeseburgers, turning up the bluegrass, and all I can see is the Georgia blacktop ahead, the pine trees blipping past to my left, and to my right, two very good dogs. Two very good friends. Blue takes a french fry with her talented tongue and sucks off the salt and spits out the potato. Zuppa barks at bicycle riders and both, for about the hundredth time this month, make me ecstatic to be alive. It’s dog-made happiness, and you can’t beat it with all the fancy cars and fat salaries in the world.
 
I might be a writer, but I’m also a man with a truck and two dogs. I’m a man who gets in that truck and forgets about all the horseshit and remembers what his soul is made of. When I pull on a soft pair of beat-up jeans and roll up my sleeves, the person I want to be appears. No illusions. No metaphors. I am sitting right here in this truck. So when I show up at your house, don’t be surprised that up in the front seat, sitting like a person (because she is, dammit), licking the salt off french fries and spitting out the potato, Blue is right there beside me. She always has been. In a few short months, Zuppa will be right up to speed. But I’ve got a back seat and they’ll make room. They know you’re worth it. They know you’ll come around.
 
I’ll give up cheeseburgers and cokes. I’ll quit sneaking cigarettes and lay off the booze. I’ll even trade in my pick-up for something that runs on corn oil as long as it plays bluegrass and has room for two big-hearted dogs. Two dogs and you. I’ll do just about anything to see you lick whipped cream off your lips and smile wide across the table at a man like me. A man who might be a writer. A man who might be a writer who looks like me and who has two dogs who go wherever he goes (including one hypothetical library).
Please understand. Please don’t fight it.
 
Because when I’ve finally convinced you to join me on this journey, when we’ve come to that happy middle ground where everyone gets enough of what they need and learns to let go of what they don’t, and when you show me again that knock-out smile and when I’m finally convinced that it is really meant for me, well, I’m sorry, my dear sweet girl, but the dogs go, too.
 
And maybe we’ll get them into the library, one day. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s just going to be a part of our process. Let the dogs have time out, then get some reading and writing done. But you’ll be allowed, sweet girl. They would never close a door on you.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Pet Smarts
The verdict is in—the dog did it!

When Mr. Dad and I, not wanting our kids’ psyches to be forever twisted into the knots of emotional angst that produce those hideous “parents dearests” tomes, decided that, yes, getting a dog could help build their little characters. After responsible-parent research into breed sizes, temperaments and personality profiles and scouring the local animal shelters, we narrowed the list to a number of possibilities and selected a pup.

Son One claims that our German Shorthair Pointer, Gretch(en)—so named because when we took her in the car as a puppy, she … well, it rhythms with fetch—“is the smartest dog in the whole world.”

Gretch’s obedience-school degree did produce a surprisingly high IQ and flawless manners, by pooch standards. There’s only one teeny-tiny problem: Her manners are only in effect when we’re home. Early on, it was evident there was going to be a serious absentia behavior hurdle. Miss G, you see, experiences (A) boredom when there’s a challenge vacuum—that is, whenever she’s left home alone.

Number One Son justifies: She just (B) “gets lonely.” In less than two minutes? That’s exactly how long it takes for G’s boredom and loneliness to kick in. Then the G-Girl succumbs to what I call (C) PMS (Pooch Morose Syndrome). Son Two insists she probably just gets (D) hungry. But she always has two bowls of kibble and one bowl of veterinarian-endorsed bits ready and at her paw tips. Or, says Son Three (and I contend he’s really reaching here), she suffers from (E) “Girl cravings.” This, of course, stops me cold. How could I not sympathize with such gender sensitivity? Recently, Son One raised all of these possibilities after we returned from a trip to the orthodontist.

Consider the scene: I’d prepared a pizza, sliced it and left it cooling on the kitchen counter—pushed all the way back—so we could dash home, eat and motor off to soccer practice. When, upon our return, I noticed that G’s nose wasn’t pressed to the front window, I immediately suspected canine foul play. The pizza, of course, was missing.

“Gretch? Girl?” Son One called. No happy clicking of doggy nails on the hardwood floors. “We’re home, Gretch.” No joyous barking, tail wagging, wild jumping and whining hello. Hmm.

After a brief search of her usual haunts, I apprehended G in the laundry room, where, wedged between the washer and dryer, she sat quivering. Ears flattened, she was wearing a wig (aka, my new string mop). She flashed her best apology grin. “Trouble in Dodge,” I speculated.

In the court of public opinion (i.e., our living room), I laid out my case.

Means: Consider her long-reach capabilities. Once, after finding a mauled sofa cushion, I tailed her through the house. As I watched, she stood at the kitchen counter, cast a wary golden eye over her non-shoulder, then strong-pawed a quarter-pound of plated butter to within tongue reach.

Motive: I submit any willy-nilly combination of A, B, C, D and/or E (previously noted).

Opportunity: Gretch was, after all, home alone for two hours.

Evidence: The trail led to the white brocade living-room sofa where, buried under cushions two and three, I discovered licked-clean pizza crusts. Red circles on the white Oriental rug indicated the per-PET-rator had partied—alone—before burying the remaining evidence. The trail then led to the white wool den sofa—don’t ask why a mother of three boys and one large dog decorates in white-on-white—where the per-PET-rator buried a few more slices with pepperoni and cheese. For later.

My sons countered with a Johnnie Cochran-like defense. They discounted her pepperoni-laden chops, her spicy breath, her saucy red paws, the tracks and the carpet fibers. Prints leading from the scene, they argued, could have been made by anyone. They were a size 12, Brunhilda Moxie, four pads. “Circumstantial,” the three chimed.

Guilty or not, at my insistence, Miss G has been placed under constant surveillance, and sentenced to the family traveling team. She now spends 8 to 5:30 in my home office (where she resides under my desk, making license plates), and sports a smug smile as she happily goes with us to soccer practice, swim meets and Cub Scout meetings. For me, it’s dog days, dog nights, even dog bathroom breaks.

Son One says, “I told you she’s smart!”
 

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