Culture: Stories & Lit
When God made the sea,
— Connie Hills
Life with Dogs
A good dog’s journey:
Culture: Stories & Lit
A Boxer’s greeting is a joy to behold. They jump into the air in such a jubilee of delight, it’s as if your return to hearth and home were the most noteworthy event of the century when all you’ve done, say, is walk to the mailbox and back. Return after an hour or more and you’ll get backflips, trumpets and a procession of drum-beating pageantry befitting a king.
But this last time, my Shelby outdid herself with the circus greeting, and a few moments later, her hind legs began to falter. As she tried to recover, her front legs failed, too. She staggered about the house slamming into furniture and walls, wagging her tail all the while. Was she having a seizure? Had her heart failed to pump enough blood to her hindquarters? Or had the cancer already spread to her brain?
She was eleven years old, this big brindle beauty to whom I was not going to get too attached. I was certainly not going to let myself love her the way I’d loved the one before her. When my previous Boxer died in my arms at age fifteen, I felt as if a part of myself had died too. I emerged from the vet’s office into a black-and-white world, a world literally devoid of all color. An hour went by before my color vision returned. I vowed right then and there: Never again.
But dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have. So it was for Shelby, who took all of five minutes to stake her claim to my bruised heart. At nine months, she was big and bold, bright and brash, the daughter of two champions. My wife didn’t want another dog, and my daughter, then seven, was wary of this bumptious intruder. They held out only slightly longer than I had before they, too, were summarily seduced.
As canine crimes go, Shelby’s were all misdemeanors: she had three accidents, chewed one shoe, and swallowed a single bar of bath soap. That was her entire rap sheet. At the first light of day, with an exuberance she never outgrew, she’d come bounding into my bedroom to play. My friends and associates dare not wake me before noon (“I don’t care if it’s nuclear war, don’t ever call me in the morning!”) Yet I understood the natural world and couldn’t blame my little angel for her uncontainable high spirits at the first rays of dawn. It took me more than sunbeams to get on with my day, but when I’d finally consumed enough coffee to come back to life, Shelby and I shared our invariable breakfast: a can of King Oscar sardines. She got the three biggest. Next up: Quaker oatmeal. I served Shelby hers on a plastic Ronald McDonald plate that I set just outside the back door.
On cool days, she would run fifteen miles with me. She shredded three cotton ropes a month playing tug of war. She ran down Frisbees; she wrestled and boxed with me. In hot weather, she could dive and retrieve in depths that exceeded six feet. Like me, she was at home in the water. On a visit to my mother’s summer cottage in Wisconsin, I heard a child say, “Daddy, look at that duck.” It was Shelby, of course, a quarter-mile out on the lake, swimming after a mother duck and her flock. One large, square head surrounded by little round ones; a sort of Loch Ness Boxer, I guess you could say.
When I became diabetic, and had to walk off high blood sugar readings in all kinds of weather (mostly rain), Shelby splashed through the puddles beside me, nearly pulling my arm out of its socket. Our neighbors referred to us as “the two thugs.” That was outdoor Shelby.
Indoors, she was delicate as a cat, taking great care around my young daughter. She calibrated her strength according to each customer, sensing precisely how much each could endure. We had similar tastes in people. Friendly but discriminating, Shelby liked the same visitors I liked, but merely tolerated the people I only pretended to like.
Fun and games are all well and good, but like most dogs, Shelby liked to work, too. To stave off boredom and enhance her self-esteem, I devised various duties for her, appointing her chief of security. It wasn’t until later that I would realize she’d already taken on the job of looking after me. The fact that I’m still here is a testament to how well she did it, despite all those dog IQ ratings that only place Boxers somewhere in mid-range.
I’ve read that fifty percent of all dogs can smell epilepsy and warn their owners of impending seizures. I have simple partial seizures—twitches and jerks that come on toward the end of the day. Before I switched medications and got them under control, Shelby would throw her shoulder against the back of my legs, as if to say, “Hey, pay attention!” Sure enough, within minutes, the seizures would start.
Shelby was still a young dog when, as a writer with a hot book, I got a call from ABC’s “20/20.” The producer asked me to appear on the show. He was under the impression that I had grand mal epilepsy and wondered how long it would take after I quit my medication to have a fit in front of a camera crew. Seizure dogs are trained to sit near their masters to protect them in the event of grand mal seizures. The well-intentioned producer pointed out that millions of people watch the show, and suggested I could sell lots of books. I politely declined in light of the stigma attached to epilepsy, to say nothing of the fact that I had a personal life. Besides, I was just having twitches, which I doubted would make for thrilling TV.
I was teaching in Iowa City at the time, and had just written a Village Voice piece. Having eaten a fairly small breakfast, I drove downtown to fax them a revision. The forecast called for heavy snow that day, so instead of going straight home, I stopped at the market to stock up. By the time I unloaded my groceries, I had a vague sense of my blood sugar dropping, and realized I needed to eat. It was my last conscious thought before I hit the floor in what proved to be a diabetic coma.
I’d always assumed that a coma was akin to sleep. It is not. Soaked in sweat, my teeth chattering like joke-store choppers, I was essentially paralyzed. I felt as if I were being strangled. Meanwhile, the insulin pump attached to my body was delivering drop after drop of insulin, putting me in deeper trouble. I needed sugar and each succeeding drop of insulin became a kind of poison.
As I lay there immobilized on the kitchen floor, I became aware of Shelby licking my face and bumping me with her snout, then leaping onto the couch and sounding her deep bass alarm out the window, then coming back and licking me some more. A neighbor heard her barking and looked inside, saw me lying there, and called the paramedics. Saved by my boisterous four-legged nurse, the one with the mid-range IQ.
When we left our subdivision for a house in the country, Shelby took on expanded duties. She was never happier than when she was chasing deer from our clover field. She also kept close watch on the horses next door. I was standing in the kitchen eating a sour apple one day when I spotted one of them back by the fence. I fed him my apple and after he’d eaten it, I got another one out of the fridge. It must have been mighty sour; the horse took a bite, then spit it out. Shelby, who had been standing there taking this in, suddenly took off for the gate like a brown cruise missile. She was soon a mere BB on the horizon. I watched in amazement as she crawled through the gate. She was soon standing on the other side of the fence wolfing down the sour apple. From then on, I waited till my jealous darling was asleep before venturing out to feed the horses their treats.
My life—the writing life—has its fair share of perks. It’s a stay-at-home job, for one thing. It allows me to sleep until noon, for another. And given that I like to write—at least some days—I haven’t had to “work” for a living for more than a decade. Shelby was at my side for most of those years. She watched me write countless stories, lending moral support. She rode shotgun in the passenger seat of my Saab or my daughter’s Checker whenever I drove to the video store, or made a library run. We lived our lives side-by-side, me and this singular dog to whom I was not going to get too attached.
I used to travel the world at the drop of a hat, but that, too, changed when I acquired Shelby. Book tours, visits to relatives—any trip that involved breaking out a suitcase, induced separation anxiety in us both. It got worse as she aged; the older dogs get, the more they seem to like their routine. I put Shelby on Sinequin, an antidepressant. There were times when I took it myself. It helped us both some, but it wasn’t until I walked through the front door that her sense of well-being was fully restored.
A few weeks ago, as the long, rainy, Washington winter gave way to a rare sunny day, Shelby and I drove downtown to the park. We took a leisurely stroll, then sat on a bench for a while soaking up sun. I couldn’t help but think back to the days when our “walks” had been runs. We were both slowing down. At the same time, however, we were still in sync, keeping the same, steady pace, stride for stride.
An old dog has a beauty and dignity all her own, with her graying muzzle and soft, knowing eye. Her silliness gives way to serenity; more time is now spent in sleep than in play. In a perfect world, we would die, man and dog, as we lived: sideby- side, simultaneously. No one who’s given his heart to a dog should have to walk in the door to this deafening silence. Or come upon a faded Ronald McDonald oatmeal plate. Or a chair whose cushions are forever imprinted with the shape of the slumbering dog.
But the world isn’t perfect. And so, the end came—much too soon, the way it always does. She did not succumb to her lymphoma, an incurable cancer that led to four surgeries over her final six months. Shelby’s faltering legs turned out to be a sign of low blood sugar, caused by a tumor on her pancreas. While I’ve long heard it said that dogs come to resemble their owners, I never knew it could happen to such a degree. The condition that led to my Boxer’s demise was in fact the mirror image of my own.
I am still in the early stages of grieving, still disoriented, still easily brought to tears. She is gone, but somehow, she’s still with me, her invisible presence watching my every move. I can’t open the door, or a can of sardines, without feeling her like some phantom limb—severed but still part of me, always here. As she will be for as long as I live.
Fine, Evil, you win. Take this body. This 12 ½ year old shell of the dog I once was. Take it all. See what it gets you.
Take these eyes. In the end, they were blind to the world and useless to me. I will keep images of every face I have ever loved, ending with Tim holding me as I hopped toward the light and into another world.
Hey Evil. You want these ears? Take them now, for what they’re worth. For in my mind, I have recorded beautiful harmonies and rhythms of nature that speak to my heart. My soul has embraced words of love and friendship that your essence will never comprehend.
My nose? All yours pal. Like you, it’s dry and shriveled like stale fruit. I’ll keep the scent memories of dew on newborn prairie tallgrass and the titillating stench of a rotting log. I can catalog the bouquet of love and joy, and happiness. I’ve known them all my life.
These legs all bent and paralyzed? Take them. I only have three so I bet you’re feeling short changed. Funny how I never felt that way. What you can never possess is the passion that fueled them. For these legs have elevated me to more mountaintop experiences than you will ever know. I have hiked more miles on flatland trails and city sidewalks than you can count. My legs have run, weaved, and tunneled their way to 18 agility titles. This single front leg has enabled people to see that we are all greater than the sum of our parts.
Last is my heart. The grand prize. Bet you think you’ve won the lottery with that one. But it rests silently in my chest and will soon be reduced to ashes. The essence of my heart that lived and loved and pumped blood through my body so I could climb mountains and wow agility audiences remains with me in a place that your cancerous tentacles will never penetrate.
You are a hideous mass that took my life. Damn you. I wasn’t ready to go just yet. Tim still needed me. But I am still here because death doesn’t end relationships. I have legions of beings that have loved me and will continue to do so.
Most of all, I love you, Tim, and I always will. And I will be waiting for you on the other side.
Modern master, Influential Teacher, Dog Lover
The dog lies on a rug in the center of the room, head on the floor, one leg stretched across the train of an elegant white dress worn by the painting’s subject, a young woman comfortably settled in a blue chair. The woman’s head is turned in conversation with the artist, who, from his seat nearby, leans forward, palette in hand. The 1880 painting by William Merritt Chase is entitled The Tenth Street Studio, and is one of the artist’s most celebrated works.
For Chase (1849–1916), this New York studio was the center of his artistic life. In addition to painting there, it was where he held court, welcoming collectors, journalists, students and fellow artists to his ornately decorated and lavishly furnished space. His much-loved dogs were frequent observers of the rarefied mix of theater and ideas that characterized Chase’s gatherings.
The Gerson sisters, Virginia, Alice and Minnie, with
A dog at rest also appears in The Open Air Breakfast (above) (c. 1888), another well-known piece. The garden dog is fast asleep on her side, as though exhausted after a morning of socializing and play. The scene’s casual air is arresting, and provides a snapshot of life in turn-of-the-century American society.
Chase, a prominent member of the international avantgarde, was an inf luential artist and teacher who counted painters John Singer Sergeant, James McNeill Whistler and Winslow Homer among his circle of friends. As a young man, he had studied in Europe, reveling in the rigor of a classical art education. During his six years in Munich, he focused on the masters of European art, and developed a deep appreciation for Spanish, Dutch and French painting. He also became acquainted with a new style of painting that came to be labeled Impressionism.
Upon his return to America, he accepted a teaching position at the Art Students League in New York City, which he embraced with vigor. During his 36-year tenure, he instructed thousands of students—including Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Joseph Stella, who would go on to break new artistic ground themselves—as well as championed American art and contributed to internationalizing its stature. Through his art, his teaching and his advocacy, Chase helped usher in a generation of American modernism.
By all accounts, he was an exuberant and generous teacher who introduced a fresh approach to his subject matter and a vibrant use of color and brushstroke. His own landscapes depicting city parks and Long Island beaches are considered to be among the finest examples of American Impressionism.
Photographs of Chase show him as a dapper bon vivant with a well-coiffed beard and an upturned mustache, often dressed in a dark three-piece suit complete with a carnation in the buttonhole. In her book, The Life and Art of William Merritt Chase (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917), Katherine Metcalf Roof described Chase “in his famous hat, accompanied by his almost equally famous Russian Greyhound, which, if not the first Russian Greyhound to be seen in New York, was at least the first one to become a marked character of the boulevards. Indeed, in those days of his bachelorhood there seems always to have been a dog in Chase’s life, usually an English or Russian hound.”
“Before returning to America Chase purchased the beautiful white Russian hound Katti which he used in several pictures, notably the pastel of one of his sisters shown in the sale exhibition in May, 1917. The dog, a fastidious and aristocratic person, spent the following summer with Chase’s parents, where he was the most considered member of the family. They found him rather a trying guest as he refused to eat anything but beefsteak, and they were in constant fear of losing him. He survived, however, to be painted by Chase and caricatured by Church and Blum for several summers.”
—The Life and Art of William Merritt Chase by Katherine Metcalf Roof, 1917
No poor, starving artist, Chase lived well; portrait commissions and teaching provided him with opportunities for travel as well as a comfortable life in New York and summers in the Hamptons. The natural light and rural vistas of eastern Long Island were popular draws for artists of the region, including Chase. In 1891, he helped establish the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art, the first school in America devoted to plein-air (outdoor) painting, near the western edge of Southampton Village.
His life and work during this period are well documented in the holdings of the Parrish Art Museum, on Long Island’s East End. The museum holds the largest public collection of William Merritt Chase art (more than 40 paintings and works on paper) and an extensive archive, including a thousand- plus photographs relating to his life and work, in particular, family photographs of summers spent on the island. Tintypes and blue collotypes (the photographic prints of the day) show the artist in his studio and relaxing at his summer residence. His beloved dogs are ever present; a large, white Borzoi and a dark-colored Greyhound are shown lounging with family members and wandering the countryside and seashore. A white, longhaired Wolfhound named Katti appears in several of Chase’s portraits, often with children. Katti can be seen in commissioned works, such as Portrait of James Rapelje Howell (1886), and in his paintings of family members—Good Friends (1888) and Alice with Russian Wolfhound: Friends (1903).
From the Chase family album:
Virginia Gerson, sister of Mrs. William Merritt
William Merritt Chase with pet dog, Florence,
This fall, a major exhibition of Chase’s work opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, after a much-lauded showing at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. In early 2017, the show will travel abroad to the Ca’ Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art in Venice.
In the catalog that accompanies the exhibition, Erica E. Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings at MFA Boston, sums up the artist’s impact on American art: “Chase is a major figure in late 19th-century American art both for his own work and the attention he brought to the potential of American art during that period.” The breadth of his painting, from striking portraits to evocative still lifes and glorious landscapes, is on full display in the retrospective, which commemorates the centennial of the artist’s death, and is evidence of his important place in the history of American art.
Dog's Life: Travel
Camping in style
RUSTIC + LUXE + DOGS
Glamping is for those who prefer to take their outdoor experiences with a side of luxury. Like the name—a mash-up of glamour and camping— suggests, it’s a world of tricked-out cabins, yurts, trailers and treehouses that offer appealing creature comforts, including hot water, an indoor bathroom and protection from the elements. Recently, Glampinghub.com, a leading purveyor of rustic-luxury accommodations, introduced a special service for dog-friendly destinations, both here and abroad. Prices range from $138 per night for a yurt in upstate New York to just under $1,700 per night for four tented cabins on a Montana ranch. It’s a new way to experience the call of the wild.
War is hell, the saying goes, and not just for soldiers. The highly trained military dogs at their side pay an equally severe price. Sculptor James Mellick has memorialized these dogs— and through them, the soldiers with whom they served—in a series of seven life-sized works. The Doberman missing a foreleg, a German Shepherd with a prosthetic paw, a Belgian Malinois with a metal plate: as hard as they are to contemplate, these dogs seem undaunted, a testimony to Mellick’s sensitivity and dogs’ innate, in-the-moment nature. Carved from cherry, poplar, sycamore, walnut and cedar, the sculptures came to life through a long process of designing, laminating, carving and finishing. Fine details—the bone structure under the fur; the curve of a leg; expressions conveyed by the eyes, brows and ears—are informed by Mellick’s lifetime with dogs as well as his current canine housemates, a Weimaraner and a rescued Lab/Weimaraner mix.
In his sculptural work, he says, his intent is to “reach a unity of shape and content, so that the secondary forms and shapes within the body of the dog not only serve as symbols of the meaning, but are also important design elements in the composition.”
This isn’t Mellick’s first dog-related artistic foray; he’s been investigating and experimenting with dogs as metaphors for more than 30 years. His first was Stacking Dogs (1985), a 12-foot tower of dogs ranging from an Irish Wolfhound to a Chihuahua, a comment on human arrogance, he says. His Canine Allegory Series (1997) also reflects his belief in dogs as talismans. “I see the dog as a totem animal of humans, a parallel self, if you will, who has the goods on us. Think about the dog’s unconditional love, trust, vulnerability, and the therapy and healing they offer. Look into their eyes and they are either saying ‘I love you’ or ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
He displayed three of the dogs—two German Shepherds and a Malinois—at the 2015 Vietnam Dog Handler Association reunion in Nashville. The veteran dogmen were drawn to them, Mellick says. “The dogs were a big hit, with the guys taking selfies with them, and many, many conversations took place around them. Men were wiping tears away. They released many emotions that had been locked up.” Their reactions aren’t hard to understand. Military dog-team jobs have always been dangerous: detecting explosives, scouting the enemy and taking part in search-and-rescue missions. Many don’t survive, and those who do tend to be deeply affected by the experience.
Mellick feels strongly about our nation’s ambivalent response to the men and women who serve in the military. As he told an interviewer earlier this year, “It’s one thing to be against war, but things really go south when people turn against the soldiers who serve. Young people today put themselves in harm’s way not because they were drafted but because they’ve volunteered. And because there is no draft, many of us don’t see the cost and we don’t feel the pain.”
In Wounded Warrior Dogs, Mellick makes us look straight at things we’d probably prefer to avert our eyes from—he makes us feel the pain and see the cost, both to the war dogs and their battlefield partners.
Wounded Warrior Dogs:
This exhibit has no connection to or association with the Wounded Warrior Project charity.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The nation’s first dog café, modeled after very successful kitty versions, opened recently in L.A. The café’s mission is to “provide a second chance for shelter dogs that are often overlooked,” according to founder Sarah Wolfgang. “The Dog Cafe is going to put a spin on the way people adopt by totally reinventing the way we connect with homeless dogs.”
In compliance with L.A. Health Department regulations, the cafe is split into two areas, the drink service counter and the “dog zone,” and food service is restricted. Because the animals stay overnight, the Dog Cafe is located in an industrial zone, but this one is in trendy Silver Lake. Customers can grab a cuppa, then move over to the dog lounge, where they can spend time with and, ideally, meet “the one” of their dreams. Out-of-town visitors who miss their dogs are also welcome to stop in and give a shelter dog some quality one-on-one time and donate to a really good cause.
The café is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 am to 7 pm. Admission is $10 per person for a 55-minute block of time (reservations are suggested). A full list of dogs available for adoption can be found on the café’s website.
Learn more about the The Dog Cafe LA.
There’s so much “funny” out there
We are taking care of a puppy whose tag has contact information on one side and says “Have your people call my people” on the other. It so accurately reflects the way many dog lovers view their position in the world—as the dogs’ people.
That tag is not the only amusing dog phrase to catch my attention in recent weeks. While traveling in Sri Lanka this past summer, I saw a bumper sticker proclaiming, “I like big mutts and I cannot lie.” Some of the windows of the vehicle were smeared all over with what I’ve come to learn is called “nose art”. The dog was no Picasso, but he was very productive, having created more art than most dogs ever will.
Most recently, I found myself chuckling over a dog-related saying at a client’s house. She had a prominently displayed wooden sign that read, “You’re not really drinking alone if your dog is home.” Though I myself lack any “wine-appreciation” genes, I knew right away that I would enjoy working with this woman.
Is your home, car or dog adorned with a canine-themed phrase that makes you laugh?
Ever wonder how your dog feels about your musical tastes? To celebrate National Dog Day (Friday, August 26), Deezer, the on-demand digital music streaming service has assembled a couple of playlists that should be enjoyed by the entire pack. Deezer worked with animal behaviorist Dr. David Sands to study how dogs hear and react to different kinds of music based on beats per minute. The results are two playlists that they claim are scientifically proven to help energize or calm your pup. Unlike previous studies of the impact of music on dogs and recommend the classical genre … there’s no Brahms or Mozart in sight. Instead there’s a selection of more contemporary musical styles including Shutdown by Skepta; Sit Still, Look Pretty by Daya plus favorites Hey Ya! by OutKast and Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees for the “happy” playlist. For the “chill” side, Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself; Adele’s Someone Like You and Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Could You Be Loved top the list for a calming vibe.
Not only is it important for dogs to be healthy and happy, but it’s equally important for their people to be as well. When canine guardians are calm and in good spirits, they project the same feeling of happiness onto their dogs. The normal resting heart rate of an average adult is between 60 to 100 beats per minute, but listening to favorite music tracks can raise the heart rate to match the increased heart rate pups experience from the exact same tunes.
“Your overall health and happiness has a huge effect on your canine counterpart,” emphasizes Dr. Sands. “Both humans and dogs are stimulated by the frequency range, pattern and volume of the beats in music. This is why turning on your favorite tunes cannot only positively affect you, but also your dog.” So, take off the headphones and share the music …!
Here are the complete Deezer’s playlists …
Songs to Make Your Pooch Happy
Songs to Chill Your Canine
I began doing sketchbooks in a little 3.5 x 5 inch journal about six years ago. I was already doing to-do lists to keep track of all my nutty daily tasks, and I decided to try to do a painting next to my lists every day if possible. As an art director, turned illustrator, turned art director, I missed painting and knew I’d need to get back in the habit by doing it regularly. I would often start painting with no idea what it was going to be. Buster & Babe, my adopted dogs/children are always by my side in the studio, and are featured often in my drawings and task lists. Buster’s a Jack Russell/Dachshund mix and Babe’s a Wheaton Terrier mix. I enjoy drawing dogs, especially Fox Terriers, Poodles, Bulldogs, and the occasional German Wire-haired Griffon.
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