Culture: Stories & Lit
Learning that life can be good
She and I are alone. When I say the B-word, she rushes to my side and goes into a sit, the first thing she learned, and so far the only one: sit comes before treat the way head comes before tail. It’s not open for discussion.
“Bagel! Maxine! Bagel!”
She’s so wiggly, she can barely hold her bum to the floor. The eyes that were sad and dull in her adoption photo are now bright. Her long tail goes back and forth at the rate of maybe a hundred swishes per second. Come to think of it, since she came to live with us a month ago, she’s also learned something else: incredibly, there is such a thing in life as feeling alive.
Maybe she remembers that a frozen blueberry bagel was what I gave her to chew on after I brought her home for the first time, after she had torn apart every toy in her crate— toys that were supposed to be (ha-ha) indestructible. Last week, she got hold of her adopted brother’s yellow rubber duck, which now has no head. Yesterday, she attacked the only toy her other new brother loves, a small purple bear he’s had for seven years, since his puppy days. She pulled it from under his chin while he was sleeping. Now, it looks like someone put it through a miniature leaf-shredder, after pulling out the stuffing.
She’s close to a year old: a chocolate Lab/Wirehaired Terrier mix, bearded, scruffy, skinny, long-legged. On our walks, strangers who stop to ask about her haven’t always been kind. It’s been pointed out to me that she looks like an Irish Wolfhound crossed with a monkey, a Labradoodle with ancestors who were porcupines, a Schnauzer crossed with a Whippet. I’m never bothered by these observations. I happen to know my new girl dog is one of the most beautiful creatures on earth.
The woman who rescued and fostered her told me during a phone conversation that she was guessing Maxine would turn out to be Retriever-ish, but maybe she said that to make me feel I’d have some experience to draw from (my other two dogs are Retrievers). I thought it would be nice to live with a dog who has two different but equal sides, like kids on a seesaw who weigh the same. That was a fantasy. I know a lot about Terriers now. I know the Terrier part of any dog has no interest in being equal. Terriers feel they should be allowed to do whatever they want, all the time, and if you don’t agree with that, something must be wrong with you.
“Maxine, this is a lesson! School time! School and bagel!” I home-school my dogs, making things up as we go along in a trial-and-error sort of way. I’m a dog-training amateur, and sometimes, their behavior drives me crazy, especially when other people are around. Anyone who comes to my home, stranger to the dogs or not, has to hurry to a chair (as in, “sit down and hang on!”) because the dogs get carried away greeting and checking out humans and vying for attention. If I shut them in another part of the house when someone’s visiting, I break their hearts. They act like eager students who do not understand why their teacher won’t give them a lesson in something they’re dying to learn.
I don’t have dog-education credentials, but I taught creative writing to humans for a long time. Also, I’m a mom. I love teaching and it’s always come naturally to me, and I do think my students and my son fared okay with me pushing them to try things they never thought they could do, and then pushing them a little harder to do those things as well as they possibly could. But they’d probably, every one of them, welcome any chance to say I was tough, or I was demanding, or I was “Terrier-like.”
“Yes! It’s blueberry!”
Maxine watches me take the bagel out of the freezer and drop it into an empty cereal box. Her tail stops moving, like an excited voice going suddenly silent. She’s confused. Why don’t I hand her this favorite thing? Is something wrong? Did I stop loving her after only one month, when I had sworn to love her forever, when love was the first word I taught her, even before sit and bagel? I set the cereal box upright on the floor. She is baffled. She takes a step toward it, then two steps back, tail drooping, head low.
When I do this with Andy, my giant, high-strung Golden, he gets whatever big carton I have. It takes him just minutes to jump the box and jaw it, paw it, crush it and rip it. When he finishes the treat, he commences to see how much cardboard he can eat before I take it away. Skip, my undersized Nova Scotia Duck Toller, gets a shoe or boot box, the lid secured with duct tape to thwart him. He is the MIT student of my household. He takes forever to paw-push and nose-nudge the box around, tipping it, studying it, until he figures out exactly where the treat is. When he creates an opening, it’s the right size for him to reach in with his snoot or a paw, and there you go. It would never occur to either of them not to liberate the treat.
Maxine went into a high-kill shelter when she was a tiny pup. There is no information about her past except that her mother is a chocolate Lab owned by a “backyard breeder.” Somehow, the Lab had mated with an anonymous bearded Terrier—definitely not one she was supposed to step out with.
The woman who saved Maxine is connected with the adoption group I had applied to. This is how she described the rescue to me: “I ran to the shelter when I found out they put her name on their euthanasia schedule for that day. Her time had run out and no one wanted her. I don’t suppose anyone going there to adopt had looked at her twice, her being so unusual. She’s the only one of that litter—they were all surrendered— who didn’t get homed. I opened her cage and grabbed her and tucked her under my arm. I wish you could’ve seen how she looked at me. She was real quiet, but she knew what was what. They always know.”
Maxine looks at the box. She lies down. Her eyes are the eyes of one who feels defeated about trying something before the trying has even begun. In her head, she is still in her cage. Everything she wants is outside it.
They say that dogs don’t cry like humans. But anyone who has lived with a dog knows they do. They just don’t get wet about it.
I whisper to her, “Don’t cry. It’s okay.”
I’ve been afraid that all those months in a cage damaged her in ways that cannot be undone. She has space issues; she’s always banging into things. Her vision checks out perfectly, but she has trouble seeing anything that isn’t straight ahead and up close. If she hears a noise behind her, she still doesn’t know she can learn what it is by simply tuning around. When you throw her a tennis ball, she leaps to catch it, but by the time she jumps, the ball is no longer in the air; then she freaks out a little, not knowing how to look for it. And she was terribly ill when she arrived: parasites, malnutrition, poor digestion. Then came a scary infection that put her into emergency care and hospitalization. This is a dog who, in her first year of life, has twice been at the brink of death.
What am I doing? Why am I forcing her to confront a task she clearly can’t handle? Why didn’t I know right away that expecting her to try for the bagel is the same as asking her to grow wings and fly around the room like a bird?
For a second, I comfort myself with the thought that maybe I rushed this. It’s only been a month. Surely, when I try again at some point in the future, all will be well, and she’ll make a tiny effort to at least put one paw on her box. But the signs aren’t good.
The top flaps of the cereal box are open and folded back. In the moment before I reach for the box to tip it and let the bagel fall out so she can at least retrieve it, I smile at her and try to tell her with a look that what I’m about to do is completely right, and what I’d meant to do all along. I didn’t really want her to do to the box what she had done to her crate toys, Andy’s bear, Skip’s rubber duck and all the other things she’s destroyed. It’s fine that she doesn’t do what Terriers have done historically to small animals, such as rats. I want her to be happy and safe and okay with herself exactly as she is. I want her to …
There’s no such thing as ES P, right? There’s no such thing as thoughts in a human mind transporting, somehow, to the mind of a dog, right?
This happened. I was thinking something along the lines of Get this box and kill it, Maxine. I was thinking, I want …
She jumps up from what was nearly a stupor so fast that I almost don’t see it. She pounces. She sinks her teeth into the side of the box, then tips her head and hoists it, and shakes it and shakes it and shakes it. Her head is going side to side almost as fast as her tail. She doesn’t know the bagel flew out until she takes a break from the shaking to catch her breath.
She spots where the bagel landed. Oh! How did that happen?
She is awestruck. She grabs it and jumps to the couch, which is covered with an old cotton blanket. As soon as she’s up there, she licks the bagel like it needs to be cleaned. I see the way she settles into the blanket. Her cage had a floor of cement.
I go to the treat container to get a biscuit. Andy and Skip are out in the dog pen and they’ll soon be inside. I know what will happen if they smell blueberry bagel and not a ordinary treat on their sister’s breath. I’ll never hear the end of it, but they’re both on a diet.
I send Maxine this thought: no way am I leaving the box lid open the next time, no way. She doesn’t tune in. She’s too busy chewing.
Crumbs are stuck in her beard. She’s holding the bagel between her slim, strong paws. She seems too fixated to know she’s about to get a biscuit, too, but of course she knows. Her tail starts thumping the couch, up, down, drumstick-like, sounding out a beat I want to listen to forever. A heartbeat.
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
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.
Culture: Readers Write
Small Dogs Healing Ways
2009 was a terrible time in our household, just plain grind-you-to-pulp kind of year. My partner had a soul-splattering, over-bearing job dealing with others’ money, where her only bonus was the fun eight mile commute out to the suburbs on her speedy and shiny orange bike. Then in late spring, I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. It was low-grade (good) but large (bad), and in my lymph node (bad), so I had to have surgery and chemo. I had only been out of vet school for a year and I suddenly had to take five months of medical leave. The cancer year is its own monster of story, for another time. But what happened during and after because of the Chihuahuas, well, that’s a tale for here.
After my mastectomy, I had to be careful around the dogs and my stitches. We had at the time one large, one medium, and one small dog. But they seemed to understand right away what was going on. Wren, the tiniest, slept on my pillow, almost in my hair, like a cat, every single moment I was in bed, which was a lot. When my hair fell out, she slept on my shoulder, curled into my hatted head.
To this day, I tend to say how Wren saved me by sleeping on me. She was my anchor.
And later, when I was healed, and zoom out three years later and we adopted Chibi, aka Tiny Dog, the six pound Chihuahua with dry eye, I realized Tiny Dog liked being in my sweater for heat and comfort, and I liked her being there for heat and comfort too. She fit exactly where my breast used to be, and I could zip her into my vest in the winter, and she’d fall asleep, content. I also had a prosthesis to wear out in public, but at home, I did not, and wore the Chihua instead.
I would never claim cancer gave me gifts. Cancer made me believe in randomness and not fate. But Wren, then Tiny Dog, made niches for themselves, a kind of commensalism, lovely for all of us. And when Tiny Dog is in my vest, she’s right against my heart tick ticking away, her pulse fluttering back in counterpoint.
Dog's Life: Home & Garden
Digging and weeding and vermin control, oh my!
"Here,” my friend Jeanette said, shoving a plastic grocery bag at me. Limp daffodil foliage flopped out of the top. “They’re a gift from Pepper. She dug them up—again!—in the flowerbed by the back porch and I didn’t have the energy to plug them back in for the third time.”
Those of us who love gardening and love dogs have days like this. It’s tough to find a good garden dog, one who will hang out with you without trashing the tulips. Cats, spectators to the core, are better suited to the job. They can lie there for hours utterly content to simply be, occasionally exchanging a look with you that says: “Isn’t this the life?”
Not dogs. Dogs are participants. Idleness is anathema. If you don’t give them a job, they’ll find one on their own. Though I’d lived with dogs for years, I still didn’t really get that fact when Else, our German Shepherd, arrived. At six weeks old, she was little more than a ball of fluff with two big eyes and two big ears, one of which flopped sideways as though its crinoline stiffener had gotten wet. Since she was so young, I assumed I could mold her into the garden dog of my dreams, teach her to hang out with me, lazing about the place companionably. I didn’t suspect that she would view hanging out as dereliction of duty.
She was four months old that first spring when I gathered my tools and the two of us went out together. She trotted alongside with a relaxed, loose-jointed gait that made her look as though she had been put together with rubber bands. But her attitude, eager at first, grew alert as we went into the fencedin vegetable garden. When I stopped to survey the place, she sat down as though programmed to a perfect heel-and-sit. While trying to decide what to do first, I absently reached down to grab out a clump of errant timothy grass, self-seeded from the surrounding fields. Like furred lightning, Else clamped down firmly on my hand (gloved, thank goodness) and began to pull. I corrected her.
“No, Else. Leave it.”
She looked puzzled, slightly hurt. I reached for another weed; she chomped down on me again.
“No, Else. Leave it!” I insisted.
She sat down again, mystified. She was a team player. She was helping. It’s what German Shepherds do. They protect and serve—even in the garden. And it was obvious that as she looked around, she could see a lot of opportunities to serve. A vermin population needed keeping in check. Barn swallows needed discipline, accomplished through a series of deep-chested woofs during what looked like a game of quiddich played back and forth across the yard. And the compost pile clearly needed regular excavations. She saw her duty then and over the past eight years, she has done it assiduously.
But while she has plenty of jobs to occupy her, she remains convinced that she was born to weed. That’s probably because at heart, like most working dogs, she likes to work in tandem. I get that now. Fortunately, she has matured. She no longer grabs my hand the minute I go for a weed. She stands by quivering in anticipation, but not doing anything until given the order.
So when my daughter, Abby, and I revamped the weed-filled raspberry patch, we recruited Else. The patch was a mess. In addition to monster pokeweed and a miserable tangle of bindweed, we were dealing with saplings of invasive white mulberry that had sprung up.
We were a little daunted by the prospect before us, but Else, now part of our response team, was in her element. In the course of the morning, she helped yank out wads of bindweed and taught the pokeweed who was boss, but her favorite part of the project was getting rid of the mulberries. This was major weeding; the trees are deep-rooted even when young, and require digging. At each tree, Abby and I dug down to loosen the dirt and expose a length of long yellow taproot while Else waited, big ears erect and twitching, eyes riveted on the growing hole. When we reckoned there was enough root to grip, Abby deployed her.
“Okay, get it, Else!”
Legs splayed out like the platform on a drill rig, Else went at the root with gusto, growling as she yanked and yanked and yanked that thing out of its lair. After wresting it free, she brought it to Abby and spat it out at her feet, clearly pleased. Score one for the team. We did everything but high-five her.
Else will probably never be the garden dog of my dreams. She will never just hang out from morning to evening. She’s too committed to participation. But over the years, I’ve adjusted my expectations and methods. I make sure she’s had plenty of exercise and has done some kind of satisfying (to her) duty—ferreting out a mouse or rabbit, aerating the compost, playing another game of quiddich with the barn swallows, maybe doing a little more excavation behind the honeysuckle in her on-going quest to reach China. After a day spent participating, she’s learned to relax. Although she remains on standby, ready for deployment, she’s content to lie on the path at my feet while I sip a gin and tonic, the two of us watching the bees together companionably.
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
A creation story that makes sense
Once upon a time, back in my teaching days at Minnesota State University in Mankato, the Chair of the Agronomy Department, Dr. Mohammed Azad, lived in the modest white stucco house clinging to the James Avenue hillside like the American middleclass clutching by its bloody fingernails to its disintegrating economic status. Mo had two PhDs—agronomy and hydrology—so I called him Dr. Dr. I often queried him in the words of Harry Nilsson: “Doctor, Doctor, ain’t there nothin’ I can take, Doctor, Doctor, to relieve this belly ache?”
I’m an atheist; Mo was a Bangladeshi recovering Muslim. He’d come whistling down the sidewalk on his way to catch the bus, swinging the old-fashioned leather briefcase his father had bought in London when he was a student and given to Mo when Mo moved to the States. I’d be sitting on the porch reading, and I’d holler, “Yo, Mo!”
Mo would stop and poke his head through a thin spot in our hedge and reply, “Is that Teresa Dave-Ass on his porch daveno reee-ding like one little girrr-l?”
In a moment of weakness induced by Mo’s post-Simpsons martinis, I had revealed how the kids in elementary school teased me about my name.
Before you call me a bigot and admonish me for not allowing this man the dignity of his name, let me say that we grew to be friends watching The Simpsons. He didn’t specify the show when he invited me over to meet his favorite TV character. He told me he’d blend me up one chutney squishie. I didn’t know what chutney was, let alone something called a chutney squishie. When I wasn’t reading student work, all I watched on TV were the animal shows. Mo’s favorite character was Apu, the Indian from India, who runs the Kwik-E-Mart.
I know what you’re thinking: “How is it that a cultivated fellow like Dr. Mo Azad, a guy with two PhDs, would tolerate— let alone enjoy—a cultural stereotype like Apu?” The answer is that Mo didn’t have a gram of pretense or political correctness in him. I suppose the answer could also be that Mo was Muslim and Apu is Hindu. Yes, Mo was in recovery, but the residue of any monotheist delusion is tough to shed. I prefer to believe that Mo’s expansive heart had room for a good laugh on anybody.
What Mo’s heart did not have, however, was room for dogs. This was the only character flaw I observed Mo to suffer; it clung as tenaciously as a devout dingleberry. So, of course, I went right for it.
This was a golden time for Beck and me and the kids, who were still in high school. One February, our dog Snickers gave birth to six pups in a big cardboard box in the dining room. As the trees filled out and the cattails grew so high we couldn’t see the marsh across Stoltsman Road, we did get to see the momma ducks lead their ducklings across the road, creating traffic back-ups that were fine with everybody. (It’s hard to find a duckling-hater anywhere.)
The pups were now knee-high and ready to give away, except for Norton the runt, who—at that stage of his evolution— looked more like a possum than a dog and barked like a seal. We decided that Norty’s utterance wasn’t a bark at all; we called it a barp. Norty barped like a seal forever; years later, at a gas pump east of Sturgis, South Dakota, a few days before the legendary Harley-Davidson rally, his barp aroused the attention of the famous actor Peter Fonda, who walked over to the old Ford with me, peered into the cab at Norton considering what he might be, and refused to acknowledge that my Dear Nort was a dog at all. It was Fonda’s contention that Norty might be the infamous Chupacabra. Gawd, I hated it when people said that.
Snickers was a Siberian Husky-Golden Retriever mix, and the puppies’ father was a Golden; the pups themselves were beautiful, wonderful American mutts, except our beloved, oxygen-deprived, always-last-to-the-tit mutant Norton, with whom I identified most closely, and who seldom left my side for 12 years rich to overflowing with love as true as a dear friend of any species.
I would gather my attack pups around me on the porch and wait for Mo. I’d hear his door open and close, then the leather soles of his wingtips on the sidewalk.
“All right, muttskis,” I’d say. “We are the old-world colonial power, and that guy up there is a tiny, third-world country dipped in ham juice. Go get’im! And off they’d go a hikin’—as my Dear Old Mater, Lucille Bernice, used to say— Yodi with his grown-up bark leading the pack, Norton chugging along behind, barping, wondering what his brothers and sisters were up to at such a pace. The Nort’s right hip never worked right, and he had to throw his leg out in a wide arc to get up any steam. He also suffered a lack of balance: he’d walk along the edge of the porch and fall into the bushes. That could have been his lousy eyesight, too.
You figure an animal possesses all kinds of animal litheness and cunning and communion with nature. But nature shortchanged Norty; he was flompy and guileless. With each example I observed of nature’s gifts denied, the more I loved him. Parenthetical admission: I have a mental illness, and that could be the reason—along with love, of course—that I identified so closely with the Nort. I know what you’re thinking: “Really, Davis? You’re missing some fasteners? Geez, we sure can’t see that in your persona here.” And my response? “Oh, ha, ha.”
Norton’s brothers and sisters had received their names first, mostly from Nikki: Yoda, Coda, Bolshoi (Yes, Nik was a musician and a dancer), Walter, Custer. We learned later that she meant Custard because of his color. My enduring terror of copyright infringement prompted the change from Yoda to Yodi.
Josh named Nort after our old British motorcycle: he was Norton Commando Davis. That was his name, but you know how it goes with the names of creatures and people we love: Josh began calling him Nortskur; one of us shortened that to Skur, and it evolved to NortskurBear, SkurBear, Skurbeery.
We found good homes for Coda, Bolshoi, Walter and Custer, and Yodi found a home with the Everywhere Spirit, whom our friend Jim Petersen said must have needed a good dog over there beyond the third bank of the river.
Mo expressed his condolences about Yodi, and we knew he was sincere. But he was also glorifying in the absence of our gang of muttskis gamboling at his heels twice daily for a solid block, nipping his pant cuffs and breaking off their milk teeth in those little round holes in his shoes.
I was teaching the young Nortberry to catch biscuits when Mo walked down the sidewalk one stunning afternoon in May. Every tree and plant was budded out, and the earth was redolent, as the poet says, with the assurance of new life and continuing possibility. H.G. Wells, author of War of the Worlds, would probably have waxed lyric and referred to Nature’s profusion as eloquent, a predicate adjective with which he was never stingy. I sat on the porch couch, and Norton sat with his front paws at the toes of my boots; he always sat a few degrees off-kilter because of his bad hip. He was ringed by biscuits whole and in pieces, and a film of light brown biscuit dust accented his muzzle like nutmeg on a latte.
Mo walked up the steps and extended his hand at the moment I tossed yet another. So far, I had not motivated Nort to open his mouth, or even move his snoot, let alone catch a bisky: this one landed on his head equidistant between his ears and stayed there.
Mo and I shook hands as we always did. He looked down with heightened disdain at my poor addled Skurberry with the biscuit on his head. Norty’s little black eyes, always slightly crossed, almost seemed to acknowledge the weighty presence above them. I grabbed the biscuit, Mo sat down; then, Norty worked his way to all-fours, climbed onto the couch and lay his head in my lap. I held the biscuit under his nose; he opened his mouth and I shoved it in. He pondered a moment; then he chomped away with vigor and determination. I smiled pridefully.
“Yo,” I said, “Mo. What are you doing flouncing down my sidewalk on this beautiful Minnesota afternoon?” I knew he was headed up to campus for his night class.
He replied in his Apu voice; I knew that I and my Skurberry were in for a battle of wits and would be miserably outnumbered. “It is you who is the big flouncer, Miss Teresa Dave-Ass, here on her porch daveno with her creature of indeterminate specie.”
“I abide no blaspheming of My Dear Skurberry,” I replied. I rubbed Norton under his ear. He chomped away. A drool spot the diameter of a soup bowl had appeared on the crotch of my overalls. Biscuit chunks adorned it like mini-croutons. “I have come to reveal to you the origin of this … ” Mo looked down at Norton as though my happily chomping Skurbear were something floating by in the yearly Ganges f lood. “ … this dog,” he said in Jack Nicholson’s voice as Nicholson refers to Greg Kinnear’s little pooch in As Good As It Gets. He then gave me a viciously knowing look and told me I couldn’t handle the truth. Then he switched back to Apu: “After which I am offering to blend you up one aubergine squishie.”
I allowed him to glory in what he assumed was my ignorance of the word. Aubergine is—of course—the French word for eggplant. And I don’t even have one PhD. Ha! “Reveal away, Doctor, Doctor,” I replied. I gave Nort another bisky and settled back.
“When God made Adam,” Mo said, “the devil was furious because God looked upon Adam as His finest creation. God had made the devil of fire, and Adam of earth. The devil claimed that fire was a superior material, and that he was, therefore, superior to Adam. The harder the devil pressed his claim, the more his hatred for Adam grew. One day, the devil and Adam were arguing, and he spit on Adam, right in the center of his belly. God was outraged to see the best of his handiwork defaced in this way. He reached down, pinched away the piece of flesh and threw it on the ground. An indentation remained in Adam’s belly and in the bellies of all of Adam’s offspring where God removed the flesh the devil had defiled. It looks like a little button.”
I nodded. I appreciate a good belly-button myth as much as the next guy. “I thought you said this was a dog story.” Mo stood. He glanced down at Norty and didn’t crack a smile. Then he turned his eyes back to me. “God looked at the little piece of flesh on the ground and did not want even one such small piece to go to waste,” Mo said. “And so out of this profaned scrap of flesh, God made the dog, whose duty it would be to clean up scraps forever.”
He turned and walked down the steps. He didn’t turn back when he spoke in his Apu voice: “Come visit the Kwik-EMart later, and I am blending you up one mongoose squishie and one road-kill squishie in a to-go cup for your friend.”
“We’ll be there!” I yelled after him.
Wonderful, I thought. Brilliant. All my poor Skurberry needs is a vicious dose of anti-dog myth to squash his selfesteem forever. I looked down: Nort’s narrow black eyes perched over his dry and cracking parody of a dog nose like an out-of-office response that said no one home … ever. How could I tell if my dear Skurbear had been undone by this attack of species bigotry? The only time Norty had ever taken on a different expression was when he had a baby raccoon in his mouth, and then he looked prim. He was awake, which was all you could ever discern of his relationship to his environment. My dear friend Norton was a vessel of indeterminate content in whom I invested more love than I knew I possessed. I rubbed under his ear and told him the true story of how his ancestors came to be.
“Skurbear,” I said, “everybody thinks Adam was full of confidence because he was God’s favorite creation. But he wasn’t as confident as everybody thinks. The truth is that Adam was lonely in the enormous new world all around him. Plus, the devil picked on him all the time. And plus again, the devil glowed ferocious with flames and brilliant shiny shimmers of heat because he was made of fire, and Adam was made of the brown earth. The truth was that even though the devil was bad, he was beautiful, and Adam didn’t feel beautiful.
“Once the devil saw that Adam felt inferior, his hatred for him grew. One day he was bullying Adam and his contempt boiled over. He spit on Adam—as all the stories tell—right in the center of his belly.
“But here’s where all the stories get it wrong.
“The devil’s spit was volcanic, and it burned that hole in Adam’s belly. Why didn’t God blow on it to cool it off? Because God wasn’t around right then, that’s why. And the devil knew it. That’s something else the other stories get wrong: God isn’t always around.
“When God came back, he found Adam sitting on a smooth, round rock staring into the fiery sunset. Adam was feeling that everything in the world was brighter and stronger than he was. This wasn’t true, but that’s how Adam felt. God looked into Adam’s heart and saw all of this.
“God walked with Adam far from the devil’s radiance and roar. God reached into Adam’s heart and excised a little piece. He pointed to a patch of earth where flecks of gold lay on the surface like tiny leaves. ‘My son,’ God said, ‘I am going to make a new creature who will always love you.’ God scraped up a palmful of earth and mixed it with the piece of Adam’s heart. He wrung his hands together and molded the heart-earth into a ball the color of caramel. He rolled the ball out on the ground. It sprouted four legs; a tail; pointed ears; a bright, curious face radiant with love; and a noble snoot. The dog ran up to Adam and licked his foot where Adam had stepped in something nasty. It tickled, and in a few licks, Adam’s foot was clean. Adam smiled. The dog smiled. God smiled. And Adam had a friend forever.”
I thumbed the switch on the thrift-store floor lamp that stood beside the couch, grabbed the stack of student stories from off the milk crate we used for an end table, and set to the work I loved and that allowed me to feel of use in the world. Becky and Snickers got home from their run then. Snickers took a long drink from the dishpan of water there on the porch, then climbed up and curled beside Norty. Beck went in for her shower, but she popped out later with the giant comforter we all snuggled under when we watched TV; we called it our comfort mountain. It was, of course, layered with dog hair. She covered the three of us, then went back in to read her papers. I was comfy as could be under the comfort mountain with Norton and his mom in that beautiful evening in that golden time.
I was still reading when Mo came walking up the sidewalk. I set the stories on the milk crate, clipped ropes on Snicker and Norty’s collars, covered them with my part of the comforter and tucked the edges under them.
“Doctor, Doctor!” I called to Mo. “Doctor, Doctor, I need one eggplant squishie.” I hustled out to the sidewalk and caught up to him. “And one road-kill squishie to go.”
Where Mo got the old Spike Jones line, I’ll never know. YouTube, maybe. The good Doctor, Doctor was a YouTube monster. I swear this is what he said: “Yes, we have no eggplant, we have no eggplant tonight. All we are having is the aubergine squishie.” I admit it: the squishies that Mo and I pounded ’til after midnight were concocted of gin, vermouth and jumbo green olives, as always. I remember our handshake that night, as I remember that golden time with the dense weight of years welded with regret.
I tottered down the sidewalk to that wonderful big old house with the covered porch at the dead end of James Avenue. Snickers and Nort and the comfort mountain were inside when I got back, and Becky, Nikki and Josh were in bed. Anissa was starting high school in Spokane with her mom, and Pascal was in his last year of prep school with his mom in Paris. It was like waking up from anesthesia when I looked around one day 12 years later and everybody but Norty was gone.
I never cried as much in my life as I did when Beck and I stood beside the table and held Norty as the vet slipped the needle in the big vein in his leg with a gentleness that still touches me all these years later. As great as the vet’s generosity of heart was Becky’s act of friendship in taking Norty in with me. We weren’t about to let our dear Norty spend one more minute in pain from his cancer.
I can’t spend any amount of time behind the wheel of my rusty old Ford F250 without feeling Norty’s head on my thigh. How I laugh remembering the time he fell through the passenger side floor. It was the look on his face, of course, that was so funny. Good thing we weren’t going down the road.
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