Culture: Stories & Lit
A surprising encounter with her dog’s canid cousins.
When you grow up as a child of the dry, in Southern California where water has always been as valuable as melted silver in the canals and irrigation ditches called zanjas way back in the early 1800s, the river calls you. The Santa Ana River calls me every day. I can’t ride my bike or walk beside it every day, but I do as often as I can, and my dog Fantasia loves the wildness of the river as if she were born to hunt there. She usually hunts tennis balls. But when we walk down the Tequesquite Arroyo just past the end of my street, and she realizes where we’re going, her head lifts and she tries to run at the end of the leash until my shoulder threatens to pop out of place. It’s the smell of willows, cottonwoods, rabbits and squirrels.
Down past the Orange County line, the river is encased in concrete and riprap, like the Los Angeles River and so many others. But here, the Santa Ana is still wild, though diminished by upstream dams and water diversion projects, and though the water runs bank-to-bank only after the most ferocious winter rains, there is always a wide band of shallow water moving eternally toward Corona and all the way down to Newport, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean.
Sometimes I worry about my lifelong obsession with place, with the small and large histories and memories particular to this part of California, even this river. But when Queen Elizabeth celebrated her 60 years on the throne, a procession of boats and barges accompanied her down the Thames, and I cheered for her river. I listened to Handel’s “Water Music,” composed for King George’s journey on a barge up the River Thames in 1717.
And Fantasia, a Flat-Coated Retriever, apparently a purebred dog picked up in Moreno Valley when she was only a year old before we adopted her seven years ago from the Riverside Humane Society, believes she is meant to be hunting ducks and fish in this river, as she was bred to do in some distant past—in Virginia, maybe, or in England.
But a few weeks ago, the coyotes almost got us, and the river taught me that it is wild still, wilder than we might like to believe. Last year’s winter storms uprooted willows and tangled the wild grapevines into snarls along the cottonwoods and oaks. This spring, the arrowroot has grown back full and lush, the straight branches Native Americans used for arrows when they lived along the river. Fantasia strained at the leash, wanting to leave the asphalt bike path along the edge of the riverbed and plunge into the trail she remembered led to the water.
I wanted to see the river, too. We wound through the powdery white sand through the cottonwoods, past the tree where the hanger has been dangling from a branch for a year as a reminder of floods, through the yellow blooms of monkey flower and the tiniest purple lupines just sprung from the glittery sand. We stood beside the water, watching a young egret watch us, and then he lifted abruptly into the air. I spoke on the phone to Doug, who remembered taking photos of us at this very spot, and then I heard the low confident laugh of a coyote.
To the left of me. West. Behind a bush. Then his compatriot answered, a different laugh, a coded chuckle. To the right of me. East. And one more checked in, burble of Yeah, I’m right here. A little southeast. One more—high-pitched, three yips, just farther in the circle.
They circle around my dog and me. It was not close to sunset. It was early. I hung up and breathed hard. I could smell them. Fantasia could smell them. But she thought they smelled, and sounded, incredibly attractive. Rather than tremble or pull me away, she sat down. Primly. Interested.
I said, “Fantasia, those are not sexy dogs. They are wild.” I thought, Do they want to kill us, or just toy with us?
I started to run away from the river, dragging Fantasia at first since she was still intrigued, straight back down the path, and they called to each other on all sides of us, as if we were passing a gauntlet of eyes. The sky was still very light, it wasn’t even 7 pm, and they were playing with us. The laughter and chorus of that many coyotes is one of the scariest things I’ve ever heard. I hear it all the time, from my bedroom window at midnight, and these are the same singers, but they sound much different moving alongside in the deadly quiet of the riverbed.
We ran until I was covered with sweat, and Fantasia had realized we weren’t hunting, but being hunted, and when we got to the asphalt path, the sounds of their game faded back. We had not seen them. I kept running on the asphalt until two young guys on bikes came up behind us and said, “You okay?”
“Coyotes,” I gasped, and they said they’d heard them, too. They walked with us until we reached the trailhead, and then kept riding. Fantasia’s tongue hung out pink and long, her sides heaved, and she looked happier than I’ve ever seen her. I leaned against the last fencepost of the bike trail and looked back at the trees swaying in the breeze, the white fluff drifting off the cottonwoods, and heard a few more chuckles of coyote song in the distance where they might have found someone else to play, to remind them of the power of moving water that belongs to no one.
This piece was adapted from the original that appeared as a KCET SoCal Focus commentary, “Notes of a Native Daughter.”
Culture: Stories & Lit
A stray meets her match.
As a computer geek, all of my jobs start the same way: with a crazed phone call from someone having an emotional meltdown. Once I reassure the individual that I can fix their technical emergencies, I’m paid to arrive on time and save the day. It’s a life. But even though my jobs all begin the same way, one job—in particular—ended in a most unusual fashion.
On this rainy evening, I found myself working at Carson City Hall, about twenty miles south of Los Angeles. Kneedeep in wires, I realized that I’d forgotten to bring in some tools I needed. As I headed out to my car through the rain, I walked past an empty bus stop and was surprised to see a dog taking shelter from the downpour there. She was a black Pit Bull with cropped ears, and it was clear that she’d recently had a litter of puppies. She sat lopsided on her haunches just in front of the fold-down seats, so she looked like she was waiting for the bus to arrive. In a private but brilliant act of comedy, I said out loud, “Hey, are you waiting for the #75 local?” The dog’s response was even more brilliant. She gave me a look—one of those “Please help me” looks; one of those, “You’re the only chance I have” looks; one of those, “How low are you going to feel if you turn your back on me and walk away?” looks.
For the record: I’ve adopted three cats, rescued and placed three others and—as a direct result of the feline invasion— also rushed various half-dead birds and rodents to the veterinarian for resuscitation. So I’m a well-credentialed pushover, thank you very much. But, with three cats at home, I wasn’t rescuing, fostering or adopting this dog. Literally: no chance. I sensibly turned around, walked off into the rain toward my car and left the dog at the bus stop. Only, she followed. As I walked through several rows of cars, she trailed me, sheepishly, her body unusually low to the ground, as if she didn’t fully believe that following me was in her best interests. Our eyes met as I opened my trunk to grab my tool bag, but she immediately looked away. I was stunned. Here was the most feared dog in America—a black Pit Bull with cropped ears— willingly giving up all her power in the hope that survival might be the reward.
Although I wasn’t going to take her home with me, surely there was something I could do to help. And there in my trunk—right in front of me—was the case of canned food I’d just purchased for my cats earlier that day. I paused, chuckled and then made the Decision: I opened a can of the cat food, dumped it on the pavement and watched, shocked, as the dog devoured it, belched and looked back at me for more. Total elapsed time: three seconds. “Apparently, you’re hungry,” I said while giving her another can, which she also devoured. This, of course, was my first dilemma: one doesn’t give a homeless dog a five-star meal and then expect her to say, “Thank you,” leave a tip and head back to the bus stop. I shrugged, slammed the trunk closed and walked through the rain into City Hall. She, of course, tried to follow me right inside. The staff didn’t allow that.
So instead, she waited under a canopy in plain sight through the front windows, a constant reminder. She was very polite about it, of course: she didn’t stare through the windows with sad, hopeful eyes like a tortured soul silently begging me for more cans of meat. She just curled up in a ball and tried to sleep.
I attempted to convince my client that he should adopt the dog. “Isn’t she so nice?” I said. “Look how beautiful she is! Wouldn’t she make a great pet?” He said no. Repeatedly. However: after forty-five minutes, I actually guilted the poor SOB into calling his mother to ask her if she might take the dog. The entire conversation lasted maybe fifteen seconds, was entirely in Spanish and went from “Hola, Mama,” to allout screaming almost instantaneously. My client slammed down the phone, wincing. There was a pause. “I should have just taken the dog over to her instead,” he said, looking down and shuffling his feet.
Two hours later, I’d saved the day once again. Computers all now working, my client and I left City Hall together. The Pit Bull immediately perked up and ran to me. After two hours. That dog waited out in the cold and rain for me for two hours. I don’t wait two hours for anything, especially outside in the drizzle. I was at a loss for words. My client was not.
“Hey, good luck with your new dog. You were right—she’s a real beauty!” he said, walking off to his car.
“She sure is,” I said, walking off toward mine. And the dog followed. I now faced my second dilemma: leave the dog when she clearly needed help or take her home with me and risk freaking out my cats. In response, I did something I’d never done before: I asked God—out loud—what to do.
“Please tell me,” I pleaded, looking into the dog’s eyes. “What am I supposed to do here? Do I take this dog or do I leave her?” The dog sat and looked at me with her head cocked. I waited for my answer. Five seconds. Fifteen. Sixty. The clouds didn’t part; there was no booming, echoing voice; and the rain didn’t stop dramatically. Instead, I opened the passenger door and announced to the dog, “Okay, here it is: if you get in, you’re going with me tonight. If you don’t get in, you’re going to stay here.”
The dog sat there, unwilling to get in the car. I had my answer.
I picked her up, put her in the front seat and drove off. Thus started a beautiful relationship.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
A dog with a job makes the perfect hiking partner
Trying to hitch a ride from Kennedy Meadows to the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Sonora Pass in the eastern Sierra, we didn’t see our handsome dog Ely as liability. Who wouldn’t want to pick up a nice couple—freshly showered, with laundered clothes—and their fuzzy, backpack-sporting dog?
Every car that passed, that’s who. Cars sped by, but still, no one stopped.
Finally, a pick-up truck slowed down. Three happy dogs vied for window space. The driver told us to hop in. “Good looking dog,” he said, pointing to Ely.
My husband Tom got in the back with Ely, and I sat up front with the driver and his dogs. It turned out that the driver had picked us up because he liked the look of our dog. So Ely really had been an asset, not just hiking the trails, but also, hitchhiking the highway.
At the Sonora Pass parking lot, I walked to the back of the truck to grab my pack and we started our 80-mile hike home to Tahoe. We continued up the pass, past the snow-patched, volcanic Leavitt Peak and granitic Tower Peak etched into the southern sky. When the trail crested the saddle, we could see aquamarine Wolf Lake nestled in the rocks below; the forested Carson-Iceberg Wilderness stretched beyond. Clouds had already begun to form on the horizon.
At home, Ely barks his head off at any sign of bear, coyote, squirrel or human. If a stranger happens to try to walk up our driveway, Ely springs into protection mode, barking, and eventually, if the warning is not heeded, biting. These are the kinds of things that we see as bad-dog behavior, antisocial problems that have resulted in complaints from neighbors and visits from animal control and even the police. These same behaviors become good-dog behaviors when Ely is on the trail.
Ely would never show aggression to a passing hiker, but once he’s tied up at our campsite, watch out. He stays up all night protecting us from all manner of bear and chipmunk. Though we bring a bear canister, no bear has ever gotten close to our food with Ely around. And strange humans elicit the greatest response, with is fine by me, especially if I’m hiking alone.
Ely was a rescue, formerly known as Buddy. And before that, Yeti. And before that, possibly Cujo. He had cycled through at least three households—places that we have since learned must not have been very nice to him. My husband and I had been trolling Petfinder.com separately, and we each came to the other, saying we thought we may have found “the one.” We showed each other pictures of the same dog, a smiling Chow/Shepherd/Elk Hound. He was scheduled to be at an adoption fair at the Petco in Carson City. “Let’s just go down and check him out,” my husband said. “We need running shoes anyway.”
We both knew that neither of us could just go “check out” a dog without bringing him home, but the people at Petco said this was a very special dog. They said we would have to fill out an application to get on a waiting list, and we wouldn’t be able to take him home right away.
The lady at Petco asked about my elderly dog, Riva, whom we had brought with us to make sure the dogs got along. When she found out that Riva had undergone TPLO on both legs—a $7,000 expense—she told us, “You can take Buddy home!”
“But I thought there was a waiting list.”
“You’re at the top,” she said, looking down at smiling, 14-year-old Riva. “He’s yours. You can take him home now.”
We didn’t buy running shoes that day, but we did end up with a dog.
On the car ride home, the newly named Ely squeezed himself out of the car window. I grabbed his hind legs and dragged him back in as we sped down the highway. Then my husband and I decided to stop at the dog park on the way home. To this day, I am not sure why we did this. With all the trails and open space in Lake Tahoe, there is no real reason to ever visit a dog park. Having a new dog apparently muddled our thinking.
Neither dog seemed interested in socializing with the other dogs. However, Ely trotted over to a seven-foot-tall man in a motorcycle jacket and leather riding chaps. He circled the man, then lifted his leg and peed on him. Proud of his efforts, he did a celebratory after-pee kick, showering the man’s urine-drenched pants with wood chips. We apologized, telling the man that we had just gotten this dog, that we didn’t really know him—he was just barely ours. This did nothing to appease him; he scoffed at us as he tried to wash off in the drinking fountain.
This was just the beginning of Ely helping us make friends.
Ely quickly showed signs of food aggression and guarding, so we fed the dogs separately. Full of wanderlust, Ely taught himself to scale the roof of my two-story A-frame and slide down the other side to the unfenced part of the yard. Once he attained freedom, he took himself for a long walk by the river. When I saw the movie Marley and Me, my first thought was, That’s nothing! Ely makes Marley look like a furry saint. Riva would just look at Ely and shake her head.
But put a pack on Ely, and he is the best hiking companion we could ask for. Ely looks forward to wearing his pack, and once it’s on, he’s all business. Passing hikers exclaim, “He has his own pack. How cute!” but Ely marches by, logging 20 miles a day without complaint. Depending on the terrain, we put his hiking booties on, too, and then he’s a real showstopper. “That dog’s wearing shoes!” people will say. One PCT thru-hiker even said in earnest, “I love your dog. No, really, I love him,” while another thru-hiker whose trail name was Train and who wore a wedding dress (one of the 26 he brought with him on his journey) featured Ely on his blog. While Ely doesn’t exactly love his shoes, and if he wears them too long, he’ll get blisters (like we do), they save his pads on shale and sharp granite.
With his backpack and booties, he’s not only cute, he’s a dog with a job. And as my friend Sandra says, “A dog without a job is a bad dog.” We often forget that dogs are animals. Their affinity for humans has helped them survive on an evolutionary level, but they are still animals with animal instincts. As we have learned from Ely, a questionable puppyhood will hone instincts that clash with household rules. But give a dog a job and those instincts will work for everyone. The behaviors that make Ely a very bad dog—his tirelessness and desire to protect us—make him the perfect hiking partner in the backcountry. Aside from offering us his protection and packing our trash (along with his own food), Ely helps us live in the moment. Backpacking is, after all, a metaphor for life: many miles of slow progression punctuated by moments of excitement and epiphany, beauty and bliss.
We descended into the valley of the East Fork of the Carson River, where we stopped for a splash in one of the many pools along the way and enjoyed a creek-side lunch and nap.
After a few days along the Carson, the trail then climbed again along a wildflower-decorated ridge, offering views of the granitic valley below. In another couple of days, we reached the Ebbetts Pass area, where Kinney Lakes offered good camping. Our route then climbed through another surreal volcanic landscape, craggy cliffs notching the Sierra sky. The trail clung to the edge of this ancient volcanic flow, with its rusty pinnacles hovering above like the spires of gothic cathedrals; Indian paintbrush, pennyroyal and mule ears scattered flashes of orange, purple and yellow across an otherwise rocky landscape.
We followed the trail back into the forest, passing a chain of alpine lakes that we all enjoyed swimming in. At the Forestdale divide, we entered the Mokelumne Wilderness, and leashed Ely to comply with wilderness regulations. We traversed the edge of Elephants Back, catching views of the appropriately named Nipple to the southeast and hulking Round Top Peak ahead. The afternoon sun drained us all, especially Ely, who struggled to find shade in the treeless landscape. There would be no place for a belly soak until we reached the saddle and arrived at Frog Lake, so we took off his pack and Tom carried it. I poured the rest of my drinking water over him, hoping it would help. Still, he didn’t want to get up and hike. Sitting there in the sun wasn’t going to work either.
“Try giving him treats,” I said.
Tom took the treats from Ely’s pack and set them in front of him. He ate a few and looked up at us.
“Give him some more,” I said.
Tom gave him a few more, and Ely ate them and then picked himself up off the ground and continued walking. I was relieved; it is one thing to carry his pack, another thing entirely to carry him. But Ely wasn’t overheated, just low on energy, which happens to us all when we spend the day hiking. Considering the exposed ridge of Elephants Back, we were lucky to have the sun. We would not have been able to safely cross the ridge in a lightning storm.
At the saddle, we stopped for a late lunch and a dip in Frog Lake before continuing across Carson Pass. The trail skirted along the side of Red Lake Peak through granite, aspen, juniper and wildflowers until it reached a small pond. Beyond it, we caught our first glimpse of Lake Tahoe—in Mark Twain’s words, “The fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Seeing the lake made us feel like we were already home. At Meiss Meadow, we turned off the PCT and followed the Tahoe Rim Trail toward Round Lake and Big Meadow.
Every day, we hiked as many miles as we could until the afternoon storms forced us to find shelter. Some days, we found a safe spot in a strand of trees, where we would sit on our packs and wait out the lightning. Once the skies cleared, we’d continue hiking until dusk, locate a campsite, feed Ely, then feed ourselves. Ely slept until we got into our tent and then woke up for his all-night patrol duty.
Each afternoon storm seemed more violent than the one of the day before, but the reprieve that last afternoon made us think that maybe the weather pattern had changed.
We woke up at Round Lake and headed for home, more than 20 miles away, hiking the easy three miles to the highway before breakfast. We crossed Highway 89, ate granola and then started up the grade to Tucker Flat. It was still early, but gray clouds tumbled over the pine-swathed horizon.
I asked Tom if he thought we should keep going.
“What are our choices?” he asked.
“I don’t know … turn around? Call someone to pick us up at the Big Meadow parking lot?”
“No way,” Tom said. “I want to hike home.” Ely seemed to agree.
So we continued up the pass. Clouds laddered the sky, shadowed by the first roll of thunder; white flashes ignited the sky. The rain started, and I said, “We’d better find cover.”
The trail clung to the edge of the ridge, exposed. The distance between thunderclaps and flashes narrowed. The gray sky fell as rain, then hail, soaking and then freezing us.
“Here,” Tom said, pointing to a small outcropping of rocks. We crawled under the granite and sat on our packs. The boulders had fallen down the side of the mountain and leaned against one another, creating a space beneath just big enough for the three of us.
The hail bounced into our small cave, but for the most part, we stayed dry. I looked down at Ely, who saw this as the perfect opportunity for a nap. I wanted to be more like him. We couldn’t do anything other than what we were doing—sitting on our packs in what we thought was the safest spot around—so what good would panicking do? Dogs live in the moment, not fearing the real or imagined dangers of the future. This is probably why we love them so much. They teach us how to be happy where we are, even if where we are is squatting in lightning position, rain and hail soaking our skin and fur.
“Is this safe?” I asked.
“Safest place around,” Tom said.
“But we’re right under that giant red fir,” I pointed. “And what if lightning strikes the granite above us? Won’t we get ground splash?”
“We’re okay,” Tom said. Really, we were in the best place within a terrible set of options—the front had moved in too quickly for us to make it back down the exposed ridge. Hovering under this outcropping of rocks was better than standing out on the trail, but just barely.
Rain seeped into the cracks between the granite and fell in curtains around us. That’s when it occurred to me that the water might dislodge the boulders, which would crush us. I tried to concentrate on the smell of wet minerals and earth, of pine sap and sage, but I could smell only my own fear—a mixture of sweat, salt and insect repellent. I pulled my legs up so I wasn’t touching the ground. I tried to see the situation through Ely’s perspective—we were just taking a nap break. Tom had managed to learn a thing or two from Ely; he too had fallen fast asleep. I took out my journal and began to write.
Tom opened an eye and said, “Does it calm you to write?”
I agreed that it did, even though the rain smeared the ink.
That’s when a clap of thunder accompanied a flash of lightning directly overhead, and I yelled, “Frick. Frick. Frick.” Though frick isn’t what I said.
“Stop yelling,” Tom said. “I thought you said writing calmed you.”
“I am calm. This is as much calm as I can manage.”
“Are you sure we’re safe here?”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do, so you might as well get some sleep,” he said, and nodded off again. Ely adjusted his position under his pack and let out a sleepy sigh.
Water pooled beneath my pack. The hail had turned to rain, blurring out the forest with its gray veil. Even the air held a smell of burning things, of fire and ash.
Nothing reminds you of your own mortality like a lightning storm—a sky cracking open. Unless, of course, you’re a dog. Then life is here in the present tense, where even if there’s imminent danger, there’s no reason not to be happy. I worry so much that I’ve practically reached professional status, and I am here to say that worrying has never saved me from anything, except maybe happiness.
The hail started again and lightning flashed so close that I could see the after-image in the sky. Tom woke up and said, “Another front moving through. We’re probably going to get some close hits.” This is not something anyone hovering under a pile of rocks in a lightning storm wants to hear.
I counted between the flashes and the claps of thunder. Each one less than a second apart. “Frick,” I shouted again.
“Shhh! With love.” I have always hated being told to be quiet, so this is the way we have come up with for Tom to tell me when I’m being too loud. Which is often.
“I can’t help it.”
“Keep writing,” he said.
The creek bubbled with its white noise. The dog remained unbothered, curled in a ball, asleep. Unflappable dog, unflappable husband. Panic-stricken me.
A mosquito landed on my knee, also seemingly unbothered by the storm as she looked for a way to drill into my skin with her proboscis. I admired her fearlessness as I brushed her away.
The worst of the storm rumbled off into the distance. “Let’s go,” Tom said. We got our packs on and climbed the ridge toward Tucker Flat. A soaked chipmunk lay twitching on the trail, had perhaps fallen from a lightning-struck fir. I could not help but think, That could have been me. The blackened trees charted a history of fire and storm. “I think we should pick up the pace,” I said. I am famously slow except when lightning is involved.
Dusk fell, and we followed the yellow spray of our headlamps. The forest hunched over us, and I jumped away from a bullfrog in the path, an animal I had never before seen in Tahoe. I thought of something E.L. Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This has gotten me through writing books and now it would get me through hiking home at night in the rain. I could see only a few feet in front of me, but I knew that after enough dark steps, I would reach the front door of our house. Ely ambled along, wagging his tail. If Ely could make the choice to be happy, so could I.
“I love hiking with you and Ely,” I told Tom.
“I love hiking with Ely, too. And I love having you in my life.” Rather than to try to decide if this was Tom’s way of getting out of telling me he loved hiking with me, too, I told my mind to Shh! With love, and like Ely, accepted everything for what it was.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The challenges and rewards of a new pup.
Perhaps she knew this was to be a lifetime position: For her first few days at home, Tula was a portrait of angelic calm. She accepted a leash and trotted next to me down the block, sitting quietly on my foot when she encountered anything new. She bunny-hopped through tall grass. She cocked her head at crickets. She talked to her toys, not with a bark but with a woo-woo. “You will love her,” Janice had written, with declarative certainty. How hard could it be?
And then gradually, persistently, the charm had to make room for the young fiend who lurked within. After a few nights of routine Tula may have deduced that her new surrounds— the grassy backyard, the hovering human, the palace of chew toys—weren’t going anywhere, and I watched as her careful reserve gave way to exuberance at the world around her. She was an exploding bottle of seltzer, most hours of every day. My small urban garden, beneath towering maples, had become an oasis of green in Clementine’s last years; when I brought Tula home, at the end of summer, the yard was lined with stone pots of geraniums and tuberous begonias and border perennials. Two weeks later every flower on the property had been de-headed. Happy and animated by the sight of me, Tula hurled herself into me from any direction; I started calling her Sanorka’s Attack from the Rear.
When she started teething she preferred me above all her chew toys, and for a month my forearms looked as though they’d been savaged by barracudas. I thought I knew all about teething puppies, and I tried every diversion possible: frozen washcloths, yelping in response, a shake can full of pennies. Tula seemed amused by my efforts. If I tried to pry her jaws off me, she would back up and bark in a wild frenzy. It was like having a baby fox in the kitchen. One night, during my allotted fifteen minutes of calm, when Tula was finally napping in her crate, I sat down at the computer to write Janice. My T-shirt and shorts were shredded; I had scabs up and down my arms. I had been brought down by a creature onetenth my size. “Tula is really mouthy,” I wrote Janice with bloodless calm. “Do you have any suggestions?”
“She must be getting her first teeth,” replied my pup’s laconic breeder. “It’s something they all go through. Give her some bones. Easily distractible.” I dried my tears and walked back into battle.
From the book New Life, No Instructions by Gail Caldwell. Copyright © 2014 by Gail Caldwell. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House. All rights reserved.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Daily routines provide welcome relief at both ends of the leash.
Back in 2004 when my daughter was 10, she and my husband were united in their desire for a dog. Me, I shared none of their canine lust. But why, they pleaded. “Because I don’t have time to take care of a dog.” But we’ll do it. “Really? You’re going to walk the dog? Feed the dog? Bathe the dog?” Yes, yes and yes. “I don’t believe you.” We will. We swear. We promise.
They didn’t. From day one (okay, maybe day two; everyone wanted to walk the cute Cavalier puppy that first day) neither thought to walk the dog. Worse still, when I said, “Misty needs a walk,” they both had excuses at the ready. With Becky, it was always about her homework or extracurricular activities; with Joe, it was his journalism assignments or gym workouts (not to mention his games of Free Cell that he thought I didn’t know about). Hey, I had work, workouts and whatever else, too. But Misty needed walking. Why was I the only one who seemed to get that?
Despite my insistence that I didn’t have time to take care of a dog—really—I gradually came to accept that I would be the one to keep track of her shots, to schedule and keep her vet appointments, to feed and groom her. In short, to be the alpha in her life. Misty, of course, figured this out on day one. She peered up at the three new humans in her life (small, medium and large) and quickly calculated, “The medium one, that’s the sucker in the pack.” While, like most Cavaliers, she wasn’t a candidate for Mensa honors, her survival instinct was exceptional.
Quickly, Misty brought everyone in the household to heel. She trained Becky to sleep with a dog on her head. She trained Joe to brush her teeth (this because I had to draw the line somewhere). She trained all of us to give belly rubs on command. For everything else—well, let’s just say she and I developed something akin to a Vulcan mind meld. She’d look at me with those doleful brown eyes of hers, beam her need, then wait, trusting I would understand—which, bizarrely, I almost always did. In no time, she became my fifth appendage, snoring on my home-office couch as I worked, cradling against my feet as I read, splaying across my stomach as I watched television.
Even so, part of me continued to resent walking duty. Not just once a day. Twice a day. Every day. Joe and Becky had sworn. They’d promised. Yet it was very clear that if my schedule didn’t find the give, Misty wouldn’t get exercised, which exercised me plenty. Not fair, I’d balk silently as she and I walked. Not fair, I’d loudly remind anyone within earshot upon our return home.
Then one day—January 1, 2007, to be specific—my husband’s hematologist uttered an unthinkable word: leukemia. With that, my walk-and-balk tirades evaporated, my head too filled with worry to leave room for petty resentments. Save the two days a week I had to meet magazine deadlines in Manhattan, I now spent eight to 10 hours of each day with Joe in the hospital, doing anything and everything I could to ease his discomfort as he stoically withstood chemo, surgery, then a stem-cell transplant. During those six months of intensive hospitalizations, Becky, 12 at the time, adjusted to other adults being in the house when she returned from school. My work colleagues adjusted to my taking off at a moment’s notice to respond to a medical emergency. Every part of my life shifted; no part of my old routine remained.
Save one: Misty still needed walking. Each day. Every day. Once, preferably twice a day. Initially, when friends and neighbors offered to step in and take her through her paces, I declined because I knew they had their own households, jobs and dogs to deal with. Though I knew they meant well, I couldn’t see my way to further burdening their schedules.
As the months went by, I began to realize that my rejection of people’s kind offers was no longer spurred by considerations about their overcrowded lives. Rather, I actually wanted to walk Misty. Not once a day. Twice. It wasn’t just that the walks were my only opportunity for exercise and fresh air. The walk in the morning before I headed to the hospital was quiet, peaceful, a time to gather my thoughts or just be before the day’s medical drama unfolded. The evening walk was a time to shake off the day’s upsets and let the worry tracks in my head go to white noise.
And then there was this. When dire illness visits your household, it’s not just your daily routine and your assumptions about the future that are no longer familiar. Pretty much everyone you know acts differently. When they see you, their smiles crumble. Invariably, they steer the conversation in the same mind-numbingly repetitive direction: How’s Joe? How’s Becky? How are you? They mean well, but their expressions, their body language, their questions are a constant reminder that your husband might die. In other words, like everything else in your life, the people around you have changed.
Not Misty. Take her out for a walk and she had no interest in Joe’s blood counts, chemo concoctions or bone-marrow test results. If it was just the two of us on the street or in the park, she had only one thing on her mind: squirreling! If we crossed paths with another pet owner walking her pooch, she had a different agenda: sniff that dog’s butt! As she chased ecstatically after a furry rodent or thrust her nose eagerly into the hindquarters of a dog 10 times her size, she was so joyous that even on the worst days, she could make me smile. On a daily basis, she reminded me that life goes on.
Somewhere during these months, she stopped sleeping on Becky’s head and started sleeping at the foot of my bed. After Joe died in 2009, she shifted to his pillow. Sometime after that when a new human named Bob entered the picture, she shifted to the rug, her pillow in tow. Quickly, she trained Bob to give her belly rubs and baths. She’s even trained him to take her on walks.
I’m grateful—but only up to a point. The truth is, after years of balking, I’ve come to savor my walks with Misty. As I watch her chase after a squirrel, throwing her whole being into the here-and-now of an exercise that has never once ended in victory, she reminds me that it’s the effort, not the outcome, that makes life rich. She reminds me, too, that no matter how harsh the present or unpredictable the future, there’s almost always some measure of joy to be extracted from the moment.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A most unusual adoption arrangement
One summer, hoping to be a role model for my kids, I volunteered at a local animal shelter as an assistant helper—in essence, a pooper-scooper.
Starting at 6 am, I bagged poop and hosed down dog cages. I remained on poop patrol until my shift ended at 11 am.
During the training orientation, I was instructed not to feed the dogs, as this task fell to the full-time senior staff.
I abided by these rules until a Monday morning in early July when I met Murphy. His 96-year-old owner Lila had passed away, and Murphy was found sitting beside her on the bathroom floor, head on her shoulder.
When Lila’s body was transferred to a stretcher, Murphy climbed aboard. Unable to reach next of kin, a kind EM T brought him to the shelter.
He looked exactly like a Labrador in every way, except he was a color they don’t usually come in: pure white.
My morning routine at the shelter always began with a cacophony of barks, growls, yips and yaps—your basic pandemonium. This particular morning was no exception. My canine friends acknowledged my arrival with a standing ovation.
Our newest guest didn’t budge.
I introduced myself to him. The rest of the crowd went wild. Murphy didn’t move.
I knew conventional wisdom says to let sleeping dogs lie.
The only problem was, I didn’t think Murphy was actually sleeping. I thought that, at best, he was ignoring me and at worst, he was really depressed.
That’s the moment I decided to break the “no feeding” rule. Grabbing a dog biscuit off the shelf, I placed it by Murphy’s nose.
He wouldn’t touch it. I pretended to leave the room.
He devoured it. I repeated this routine at least five more times. On the sixth go-around, I decided to stay. Murphy decided he’d eat.
More than three weeks passed before Murphy decided to take part in the standing-ovation segment of the morning.
After that, he was first off his feet and after that, I was hopelessly in love.
The end of summer was now approaching, time for the shelter’s annual “Adopt a Furry Friend” campaign. I made posters and greeted many of the prospective adoptive families. The event was a huge success!
Fifteen dogs were in need of homes.
Fourteen were adopted.
No one chose Murphy, and I couldn’t understand why until the shelter director explained.
“All the other dogs play the part. They work hard at making themselves appear adoptable. They allow themselves to be petted, they lick hands and faces, give out their paws and play with the kids. Murphy mopes. That is, with everyone but you.”
We lived in a condo with a no-pets policy. It did not seem fair. Murphy and I belonged together.
I knew that. The shelter director knew that. So we made an arrangement. I would be allowed to “adopt” Murphy. The only caveat: he would sleep at the shelter. I would provide love, nurturing, food and exercise. The shelter would provide, well, shelter.
And so Murphy and I began our unorthodox partnership. Every morning after I put the kids on the bus and before I left for work, I’d head out to feed Murphy breakfast, take him for a run and cuddle with him on a chair in the employee break room.
Dog treats and toys became staples on my weekly shopping list. Every afternoon, once the kids finished their homework, Murphy and I played Frisbee in the exercise yard and then stretched out on the lawn for a hug-fest before I left.
It took time, but I taught him how to keep a biscuit steady on his nose and not move until I said “Okay, buddy, chew!” He never cheated. Not even once.
Sometimes, on the very best of summer days, we walked to the park down the block and ran through the sprinklers together. He chased birds and ducks and geese and squirrels and little kids in wagons. I chased him.
Our love affair lasted nearly two years.
Murphy passed away quietly in his sleep. I was just one block away when it happened. I placed a biscuit by his nose. Murphy was the only pet I was ever privileged to have.
Some would argue I really wasn’t his owner because he didn’t live with me.
I would argue back that he did indeed live with me, in the most important place of all: my heart.
Cell Phone Lady
That spring, my new park friend Hayley lectured me about talking on the cell phone at the dog park.
“I like to leave my phone at home,” she volunteered to me, when she saw me having an animated conversation with my brother in Philadelphia. “How sad to be miles away while Toby is playing joyously at your feet.”
Ultimately, I was persuaded. The idea of a daily intermission from the virtual, a spot of sun through the cloud, appealed. Like the rest of
civilization, I was leashed to my devices, as well as to my Facebook friends and my 24-hour news scroll. You were in a room or on a street or at a gorgeous park, but you were somewhere else.
As if on cue, a stout woman with a brown shag haircut started coming to Amory Park that April, climbing out of her low beige sedan with a cell phone forever cradled between her shoulder and her ear.
Talking, she’d let her two Westies out of the back seat, then follow the pair of white pom-poms off the tar and around the grass, never looking up, idly holding empty poop bags in one hand like little jib sails. It was painful to watch her twisting her neck to keep the phone in place, looking and nodding into the middle distance as she talked. Now in her 40s, she was heading toward some expensive later-life chiropractic sessions.
Hayley and I hated her right away. Whenever she’d pull into the parking lot, we’d look at each other and raise our eyebrows. “Hate her.” Here she comes, the lady who doesn’t care about being here, twilight-zoning her way through this beautiful place. We had attitude about it. For a half-hour, she’d linger on the phone, her dogs drifting together by themselves ahead of her, an absent-minded shepherd with her flock of two.
Finally, she’d click the phone off as she returned to the parking lot, and they’d all get back in her car. It was as though the park was merely a necessity in her day, to be gotten through, like taking out the garbage.
Cell Phone Lady looked a bit like her dogs, as is often the case—feathered hair, wandering forward close to the ground. She seemed weighted down by the world, and her conversations didn’t appear to be particularly cheerful. She was the absentee leader, walking behind them, in another world, out of touch. At least the dogs had each other, I thought. Then one blue-sky day she showed up, and midway into her shoulder-led trip through the park she clicked off her phone and put it in her pocket.
Her call had ended.
Her bubble popped, and she stood blinking, looking up. It was strange, and she seemed lost standing on the field without her crutch. Her dogs, sniffing the ground side-by-side, didn’t notice. It might have been the first time she’d really looked at the place, taken in the trees and the grassy hill and the other owners.
I saw my chance, split off from the grouping of people and dogs, and moved toward her with Toby skipping at my side. “Hello Cell Phone Lady,” I said as I approached. She laughed. It was a hearty laugh, and she clearly took no offense. Suddenly I was very curious about who she was. She brought an unexpected amount of eye contact to our encounter, and she said, “Hello park person.” Again, she laughed.
It was day and night, my impression of her, the way it switched over in a moment like a page in a book. Suddenly I wanted to be on her side. Toby headed over toward the Westies, sniffing and sniffing. It was as if he’d sensed my shift in reaction. “What are your dogs’ names?” I asked. She was with “Miss Midge and Miss Hope, 3 and 8,” she said, and they were all on a break from work. She said something about how they loved getting a break from “the house” and “the clients,” so I asked where she worked. She was the manager of a halfway home for intellectually challenged youths, and she was on her lunch break but still in contact with the other counselors at the house.
This was her time to coach and supervise. Sometimes the counselors needed pep talks; burnout was common in her field, she said. She found she could muster positive energy when she was away from everything for a few minutes. The clients at the house loved the dogs, too, and she was glad about that. Midge and Hope were a healing presence, with Midge the grande dame of the whole human-dog litter. The kids really lit up when the dogs were underfoot. And she lit up when she told me that, her puffy eyes taking on a sparkle. She went on sharing, as people often do at the dog park, about all the special times the clients would have with Midge and Hope, and how dogs had been her savior when she was young and afraid.
In short, Cell Phone Lady was the best person ever, a combat fighter in the war for the needy and helpless. She was completely sympathetic, and her love of the park was real, if entirely different from mine. It gave her freedom from her routine, a little slack on her leash. Like me, she let go at Amory; we were just letting go of very different things. I’d gotten her relationship with Midge and Hope entirely wrong. She was the backbone of their trio, just getting a stretch. She was so damned maternal, there for all those kids and colleagues and dogs. I felt like a silly fool having judged her, and so did Hayley when I told her.
“You mean WE were wrong?” she asked in irony.
From that point on, when we saw Cell Phone Lady on the field, doing her thing, straining and straining her neck, we nodded at each other. “Love her.”
Adapted from Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park by Matthew Gilbert. Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Gilbert. By Permission of Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.
Culture: Stories & Lit
My golden retriever, four years old,
on the edge of a green, rippling
slopes into the deep end, but he stays
in the person of his patient owner.
and my dog stares as if at the current
down her neck, an elusive girl
What does one do with a sin-bedraggled
What can be said to convict
respect, even—for dogs who know
Culture: Stories & Lit
One lick at a time, a reformed Terrier helps the unemployed find reassurance.
Einstein greets my clients with an enthusiasm no paid receptionist could match. I mean, even if I paid a receptionist $100,000 a year, he or she wouldn’t give each client a big sloppy kiss. He then escorts the client to the sofa, sitting right next to him (if not on his lap) and bestowing another round of kisses. An occasional client prefers career counseling without a face-washing and eases Einstein off the sofa. Undeterred, Einstein assumes the position: head on the client’s shoes.
Sometimes, a client gets anxious during a session. After all, it’s not easy to discuss having been unemployed for eons and trying to land a good job at a time when they’re harder to find than a perfect (and cheap) dog-sitter who’ll stay at your house 24/7. When clients feel stressed, they often pet Einstein; if they were already petting him, they tend to speed up—a useful anxiety detector for me.
Einstein is also my stress management consultant; I’ll often snuggle up to him on the floor, nose to nose, and rub his belly. Thirty seconds of that makes anxiety a physical impossibility. He’s my fitness trainer as well. Without him, it would be too tempting to stay on my butt, but Einstein needs his exercise, so we take walks four times a day.
Lest you think Einstein is the perfect dog, let me tell you what he was like before he matured into a multitasking professional.
When I walked into the shelter’s adoption area, I was greeted in the first cage by a Pit Bull, who sort of snarled. I sped up. In the next cage, a Rottweiler retreated in fear. I walked on by. But in the third cage, a little white Terrier with a Poodle-y face stood on his back legs and pawed the cage, squealing: “Please take me out. Puh-leeze!” The attendant told me this sweet dog had been thrown over the fence into the pound’s parking lot in the middle of the night.
Unfortunately, the shelter policy required My Doggie to stay there for seven days lest the owner decided to reclaim him. The nanosecond the pound opened on the seventh day, I phoned: “Is that white Terrier/ Poodle mix still available?” Yup. I jumped in the car and retrieved him. He jumped happily on me, then equally happily into the car. He didn’t, however, like our next stop—the vet, for neutering—quite so much. But he handled it without a hint of a growl.
Alas, while his trials were over, mine were just beginning. Although he was almost a year old, he still had a bad case of puppy hyperactivity on top of new-home anxiety. Within the first week, Einstein had eaten the only pair of eyeglasses I’ve ever felt looked good on me, and chewed a hole in three, yes, three, carpets.
And those weren’t the worst things. He decided to make a meal of my medication. The fact that it was in a sealed pill bottle didn’t stop my goal-oriented boy. He treated it like a chew toy. Alas, his reward was 20 pills. Off to the vet to get his stomach pumped.
But the scariest episode of all happened one morning when I opened the door to get the newspaper. Einstein escaped and tore down the street. I—in T-shirt, shorts and slippers—raced after him. While there are many turns he could have chosen, he picked the one that put him on the freeway on-ramp. I chased him up the ramp and, for the first time in my life, was grateful for traffic. Cars on the freeway were at a dead stop. Knowing Einstein likes being in the car, I yelled, “Someone open your car door!” Miraculously, someone did, whereupon Einstein jumped in and was saved.
Believe me, it’s all been worth it. Einstein is a beloved family member. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I care more for him than I do for most people. (I love him almost as much as my wife.) He’s a true member of the family, not to mention the world’s best receptionist, co-counselor, stress reducer and fitness trainer
Culture: Stories & Lit
Wherever scent blows, this hound goes.
He trots the trail happily, lapping the green
in the trough of wind—coyote scat,
of opossum skin, the bear’s
the swoon of smells his canine art,
this stinking world.
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