Culture: Stories & Lit
On September 1, 2001, I peered into Afghanistan from the very small corridor that touches the Chinese border. Working for a student travel company, this trip along the Chinese portion of the ancient Silk Road had reached its westernmost point. Tomorrow we would retrace our path back eastward to Beijing, to board our plane back to the States on September 11. Life was following its trajectory to extreme and far flung adventure. I had been out of the country on various assignments for nearly two months – time to come home.
The next month would unfold into events far from anyone’s control. On the evening of September 11, I was packing my bags in the Beijing hotel preparing for my flight. With the time difference, we were in horror of what was happening back home on the morning of 9/11. It took another two weeks before I had finally finagled my way back to Boulder after being stranded in Beijing following the terrorist attacks and the chaotic cancelation of international flights. The following week, I was glued to the TV watching anthrax scares after all the employees at my student travel organization were laid off. The director could see the writing on the wall.
Out of all the possible ways to stay sane during those uncertain and CNN-watching times, I chose puppies. I wandered out of my house in the crisp October and into a pet store.
“How many puppies can I have with me in the puppy meeting room at one time?”
“I’ll take a Beagle, a Dalmatian and Golden Retriever, please.”
I sat cross-legged in a sterile 6 X 6 room as they were brought in one by one. They wrestled and tumbled the anxiety right out of me.
Two days later, Roy came home with me from the Humane Society. The dog I named Roy was a three-month-old Bloodhound / Sharpei mix. Yep, try to picture what that looks like. I had no idea what I was doing with my life, but I knew I needed some levity and grounding. I purchased a leash, a food bowl, and a clicker for training at the Boulder Humane Society store. The woman behind the counter said with a knowing smile, “Watch out. When you settle down enough to have a dog, a husband and kids are not far behind. You’re sending a message to the universe - I see it all the time.” It seemed a bit overreaching for the volunteer cashier, but I thought at 31 years old, with some serious curve balls thrown into my career as a travel guide, that a husband and kids might be cool.
“Roy” is a slang word in the Southern Thai dialect (where I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer) that means everything good. Food was roy, clothes were roy, even the weather or a new pickup truck. And my caramel-colored Roy with a wrinkled forehead got me away from the news reel and out of my slump. Like all puppies, he chewed my shoes, needed to be let out to pee two or three times a night and demanded my attention through exercise and socialization – all really good training if you are going to have children one day.
This optimistic, enthusiastic companion bore witness to my next 13+ years: finding the love of my life, three moves, three children and my own wrinkled forehead. He protected me from the fed-ex man and things that go bump in the night, licked the tears of miscarriages away, slept in the bed next to me when my husband traveled or when I had 68 days of pregnancy bed rest. He even kept my feet warm when I was up through the wee hours nursing and soothing my infants and stood guard next to their cribs and infant carriers. Roy is their godfather, after helping me send my message to the universe, my harbinger of life’s gifts.
For the first 3 years we were together, he was my baby. We hiked, I obsessed over his possible ailments on the internet and kept a folder with all his report cards from puppy preschool to adult behavior training. When he was two, Will and I lived in Austin. On the weekends I took him running through the wildness of Barton Creek. He ran three miles for every mile I did - looping ahead and behind, patrolling my perimeter and stopping to hump the smaller dogs he passed. Running, humping, drinking from the fresh creek: good days to be a dog. When we came back to Colorado, we lived on ten acres in Nederland and he chased the huge mule deer and roamed free without a fence. As life progressed, other human babies cornered my attention, we moved to a fenced yard three thousand feet below and I would often look over to him with guilt. I’d love a run too, I thought. How many mornings was I trying to get my three kids to school on time without losing my shit, that I didn’t even turn around to meet his watchful eyes? I’m sorry, buddy.
In two day’s time I have scheduled to have Roy euthanized in our home. I wonder at the tears that lay centimeters below the surface as I go about my day as usual – It’s the logical thing to do. He’s almost 14. He’s lived a great life. He’s suffering. He can’t stand up on his own any more. The drugs have left him a sleepy shell of his former self. Yet, today as I return from the grocery store, his tail thwaps against his dog bed to see me enter. I eat with him in his dog bed. He gets smoked salmon from Whole Foods - all he can eat. I eat my sushi. He sighs his long yogi-ujay breath. I cry.
When someone you love is dying, all the refrigerator magnet platitudes suddenly feel profound. No one else has been such an intimate witness to my life, a bridge through my chapters and cheerleader and non-judgmental friend through my craziness. There’s always some editing to what I show – to even my husband or best friends. Roy has witnessed me trying to squeeze into the too-tight jeans, lip-synching Aretha with a hairbrush, blubbering sad, saying what I wish I’d said to the bathroom mirror and the Madmen evening marathons that I explain away as being really swamped with life. He knows.
My ten-year-old daughter asks me why dogs don’t live as long as we do, why they live seven times faster. Maybe another gift from our pets is to remember that life is brief. We get to witness their silly infancy, their wild and confident teen years and finally the old age that we all might be lucky to face ourselves. All of this happens for them in a decade or so of our own life. Our time here is just a blip – don’t take anything for granted - they remind us.
I hold Roy’s white muzzle in my cupped hands and look into his clouded eyes. I am looking for a message, permission, my further life instructions. I can insert anything I want: “my message to you is _________________. “ A) Yes, I need your help to go. B) Thanks for doing the right thing because I’m hurting. C) You’ve got this, Anni. You don’t need me any more. Or even D) Please remember to wear sunscreen. Instead I just see his goodness, his Royness and maybe that’s all the life instruction I need: remember the goodness.
Culture: Stories & Lit
When the action kicks in real life, being a movie buff pays dividends
My Boxer puppy is allergic to bees.
I found out as I barreled home from work on I-580 East toward the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge one recent afternoon.
Cali—short for “California”— goes to work with me every day. One moment, she was a spry, energetic, sporty Boxer; the next, vomit everywhere, bile and diarrhea all over the passenger seat. I accelerated, crossed two lanes of traffic and pulled onto a wide shoulder just off the exit to the bridge.
Within seconds, my door was open and I was crunching through gravel to the passenger side, driven by adrenalinesoaked instinct: “Dog is sick,” “Have to protect dog,” “Dog comes before you.” I got her out of the car and put her down, watching helplessly as she just kept throwing up thick, yellow bile. She ran toward the bushes and fell on her face, grinding to a halt in dirt and gravel. Out of answers, I picked her up, inadvertently coating my Sevens and Sperry Top-Siders with dog poop. Fashion goes out the window when you’re looking at your best friend dying. I might as well have been wearing a ratty, hand-me-down pair of sweatpants and slippers.
Instinct, that quiet genius that whispers the right answers in your ear in moments of trauma, kicked in again. I called 9-1-1. Who the hell are you supposed to call? There’s no protocol or schematic. Puppy-care books don’t have a section on “What to do when you’re emotionally stranded on the edge of a highway with a dying, breathless puppy.”
One ring, and a female operator picked up.
“9-1-1, how can I help you?”
“Ma’am, my dog is dying!”
Cars piled up at the nearby intersection and pale, worried faces turned toward a man holding a limp puppy and screaming helplessly into his phone.
Turns out, the woman who picked up the call was an angel. She was exactly the right person at exactly the right time—a serendipitous turn of events that allowed her to know exactly what I needed.
“Sir, there’s an emergency vet clinic in San Rafael. I’m putting you through now.”
The phone rang once, and a man picked up. He told me the address. With shaky, uncertain, too-large-to-be-effective-onan- iPhone-keypad fingers, I punched it into the phone’s maps app. Cali’s tongue was hanging out of the side of her mouth.
And this is where the story became all too familiar. The surreal events that were unfolding in front of me were uncannily similar to the scene in Pulp Fiction in which Vincent Vega (John Travolta) races across Los Angeles with his mob boss’s wife overdosing in the passenger seat. Because I’d watched the scene at least 20 times, I knew what I needed to do. When the action kicks in in real life, being a movie buff pays dividends. I went into attack mode. This story would have a happy ending.
I screeched through a red light to get back on the highway, and drove to the vet clinic. Cali was Mia Wallace—eyes rolled back in her head, froth around her mouth and nostrils— and I was Vincent Vega, driving at breakneck speed in his candy-apple red Chevy Malibu (or in my case, an unassuming black Toyota Prius). I weaved through traffic. Horns blared.
In the passenger seat, Cali continued throwing up. Weak and exhausted, she rested her head on my outstretched arm, her bloodshot eyes rolling lazily around in their sockets.
All I could think to do was talk to her.
“Cali, you can’t die. You’re so important to me. I know it’s ridiculous, but you literally are my best friend. You can’t die. The six months you’ve been alive—we’ve spent every moment together.”
The robotic female map narrator told me to take the next exit.
As Cali continued to slip away, I sped off the exit, right into a wall of traffic and nearly into the rear end of another car.
“Cali, Cali, Cali …”
Looking over at her, I thought she had died. Her eyes weren’t registering; they were glazed over and the inner eyelid covered most of her pupil. I stuck my face next to her muzzle and could feel only the faintest whisper of breath.
Back into adrenaline mode. This dog would not die if I had anything to say about it. The Pulp Fiction fanatic in me recalled John Travolta speeding through the empty LA streets—“Don’t f---ing die on me, Mia!”—as I whipped around the corner and through the next two red lights. Traffic began to pull into the intersection, but I could tell that Cali wouldn’t have a whole lot of time left unless I got to the clinic.
The robot woman told me the destination was on my right. In a move similar to Vincent’s when he drove through the front window of his heroin dealer’s house to get Mia the adrenaline shot, I pulled into the parking lot, angling the car haphazardly across three spaces. I left the car running, picked up Cali and ran inside.
A vet tech met me halfway across the lobby and grabbed Cali, taxiing her back to the examination rooms, past a door locked with a key code. The last image I had was Cali hanging from the vet tech’s arms, her too-long-for-her-body legs swinging awkwardly back and forth.
And then I broke down. Adrenaline only goes so far, to the point at which you can finally take a breath and process what has happened. I cried like I haven’t cried in a long time. I’m the last person to throw a self-pity party, but confronting the reality of a dying dog when you’re driving home from work on an otherwise-ordinary Friday shocks you right down to the bones.
That’s where the picture-perfect similarity with the scene from Pulp Fiction came to a close. I spoke with the lead veterinarian, who gave me a rundown of the procedures and measures they’d need to take. Cali had gone into anaphylactic shock from a bee sting, which can be fatal. The cost of the treatment would run between $900 and $1,200. “Here’s my Visa. Keep it.”
I went out to the lobby to get some coffee to shock myself back to life before saying good-bye to Cali. I both thanked and apologized to the people working the front desk. They led me to the examination room to see Cali, and all I could do was fold down to her and sob. I needed comforting from her; isn’t that what dogs usually do? Our roles had been traumatically reversed. She shivered from the fluids they were pumping into her, and looked around in confusion at her surroundings. The vet, the technician and I comforted her. As she lay on the examination table, we went over the diagnosis and logistics.
This experience convinced me of three things:
One, even though I’m conditioned to be angry and resentful about speeding tickets and the CHP, I think it’s true that, for the most part, people working in law enforcement want to help. A hysterical man calls an emergency line about his dying dog, and the operator deftly handles the situation, pointing the man toward the best solution to the terrifying problem. It was the help I needed when I needed it.
Two, veterinarians and people working in animal health are amazing. A grown man bursts into the vet clinic with a wild look in his eyes, breaks down completely and they take over with both precision and grace. Within minutes, the dog is hooked up to the right concoction of medicine and fluids and slowly comes back to life.
Three, when a loved one is dying, all the mundane, ridiculous things we worry about go out the window. All the bills I have to pay and all the obligations I have to fulfill dissipate on the wind when I’m faced with a genuine existential crisis: my best friend is about to leave my life forever. For the first time in a long time, I was humbled, reminded of what really matters in life.
At the end of “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife,” as a kind of favor for saving her life, Mia Wallace tells Vincent the stupid joke she had refused to tell him at the beginning of the sequence: “Three tomatoes are walkin’ down the street. Papa Tomato, Mama Tomato and Baby Tomato. Baby Tomato starts lagging behind, and Papa Tomato gets really angry. Goes back and squishes him and says: ‘Ketchup.’”
Depleted by shock, Vincent only manages a crooked smile and a half-hearted laugh. After Mia turns away, he blows her a good-bye kiss.
Later that evening, I got a call from the vet saying that Cali was going to be all right. Within a half-hour, I was picking her up. And although this joke had a dark and ominous quality, I have to look back at what happened that day and do my best to laugh, even if it’s only an uninspired chuckle.
I know, I could probably ease up on the saccharine. But that day, I gained a better understanding of how precious life is. Since then, I’ve followed Vincent’s lead and blown my loved ones a kiss whenever I leave home—a tribute to Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s wife.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Same breed, different dog, new challenge.
Our first Standard Poodle, Sophie, was everything you assumed when you just read the words “Standard Poodle.” A reincarnated 1920s flapper girl with an apricot coat and long legs, Sophie was always ready for a party, and her prance told you she was well aware of her charms.
Our second Standard Poodle, Buddy, was a black-and-silver puppy-mill rescue with oversized paws splayed from years of standing in metal cages, and all the grace of a goony bird. He had to learn to go on walks, to play with toys, to leap into a car, to accept a treat and feel like he deserved it. After a few weeks of sitting in the yard, somber as a rabbi, staring at the grass, he fell in love with the world. From then on, he woke up happy every morning, practically grinning at the joy of this new freedom and fun.
Two years after we adopted him, he was diagnosed with thoracic lymphoma.
No, I wailed. That is not fair. You don’t spend four years locked in a kennel with broken glass and feces all around you and get only two years to love the world.
With some skilled—and pricey—chemo (we dubbed him Our Little Trip to Greece), we bought him time. I was doing “cancer math,” desperate that he have at least as much joy as he’d had sorrow. He had another wonderful two and a half years, and when the cancer came back, it was merciless but swift.
And then came Louie, our third Standard Poodle.
Raised with cattle dogs, Louie learned their loud bark and rowdy ways. He barged into any situation, barking with such force that he scared away the strangers he was desperate to befriend. When we adopted him (given up because he barked too much … and his person had never really liked the breed anyway, she loved her cattle dogs … it was her partner who bought the Poodle, and a few years later, they broke up …) Louie was already seven and a half. For a year, we waited for him to settle into calmer, older-middle age—just as we were trying to do. But Louie stayed as bouncy as a young kangaroo, excited about everything, without an ounce of prudence.
“For God’s sake, Lou,” I said more than once on each walk. “Settle down, sweetheart.” “No bark.” “Easy.” “Good to be quiet.” “By my side.”
He heard and responded, each time, for approximately three seconds. Then a glint came into his eyes, and he bounded ahead, barking even louder.
Friends were used to my eyes softening whenever they asked about Buddy. “Aw, he’s great,” I’d say. “Sweetest dog on earth. Best dog I’ll ever have.” Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Was I still comparing, and did Louie somehow know it?
Well, no. Lou just likes to bark. Not inside, I might add; he stopped that as soon as he was removed from the pack of cattle dogs. Inside, he trotted after us, cuddled close, did whatever was asked. The problem was just stimulus—anything encountered on a walk; any poor souls, God help them, walking past our front yard; anyone ringing our doorbell.
At the 18-month mark, my husband and I admitted that all the hushing in the world wasn’t going to interrupt the electricity flying along those synapses. We needed a new approach. Instead of trying to prepare my dog, I started preparing the humans.
“If he likes you”—flattery always helps—“he’ll bark really loudly. It means he wants to play.” Which was entirely true, and which instantly erased their wariness. Suddenly, the bark was a prize, and the interactions that resulted were delightful. “Well, I’ll play with you,” people teased, bending close, and Louie bounced with joy and barked again, proving his affection. Instead of me slinking away, mortified, dragging a chastened dog who wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong, I walked away waving good-bye, and Louie bounced along at my side, adding another new friend to his roster.
Before dinner parties, I emailed our guests and explained that our dog would be barky and seem, well, insane, for the first 10 minutes, then would settle down and become a good dog. As a result, nobody jumped or stepped back, which had always prompted our confused but eager dog to bounce even closer and bark even louder. “Ahh,” they said instead, “there goes Loud Louie!”
And in about five minutes, instead of 10, he settled down and became a good dog.
None of this is any excuse for poor training, and yes, it was incumbent upon us to teach him to behave better, and yes, we failed and resorted to a sloppy workaround. All true.
But the lessons it took so long to learn with Louie were the same lessons it had taken me too long to learn in marriage: The creature you love is Other. You don’t own his quirks and habits and opinions. They may change over time; they may not. So you love him thoroughly and completely and stop fretting about what people might think.
And sometimes you do a bit of tactful explaining ahead of time.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The Power of Name-Calling
Our new Golden Retriever puppy is nearly six months old and her learning experiences are our learning experiences. Five times a day, she whimpers to go out; five times a day, we tell her Not now, Maisie. All three of us are learning what to expect from one another concerning patience.
Even though she is our fourth Golden in a long line of beloved dogs, the art of dog training and the understanding of canine behavior have exponentially increased since our last dip into dog parenting. But still, similar to child rearing, hundreds of “experts” offer completely contradictory advice: Have the baby sleep in your bed; never let the baby sleep in your bed. Let the dog sit on your lap; never let the dog sit on your lap.
During the first weeks of Maisie’s transition from being one of 10 littermates to the solo dog in our universe, she was the most adorable, cuddly, sweet-tempered puppy. Then, my husband and I began noticing unpleasant behaviors. Take away a toy or a stick and Maisie’s cute puppy face morphed into what looked like a snarl. I’m talking a display of fangs, which seemed more than mouthy puppy frolics.
Cartoon dogs bury their bones all the time, but when a real dog runs out the door, bone in mouth, and appears to be digging to China and growling if someone gets near, one worries. Our hands and arms were marked with scratches and scabs, and these made us even more cautious in approaching our new pup.
So we phoned an expert. For privacy purposes, I’ll call this person Susan. Susan responded to our SOS immediately, and arrived with an upbeat attitude—You can handle this. We can retrain Maisie—and oodles of information. Our sighs of relief must have been audible when, on her first visit, Susan modeled a cheery dominatrix and coerced Maisie into polite manners. She did this by using force. I don’t mean she used brutality; let’s just say that she out-bullied the bully, showing Maisie who was boss. Susan was not a big woman, but she knew how to square her shoulders and maximize her voice. At one point in the training session, she put a headlock on Maisie and called her “a stubborn little devil.”
We’d never used force with our other dogs and were a bit taken aback, but maybe this dog needed more discipline. Maybe we were the problem. Maybe we needed to buck up, tolerate less, use tough love. We felt badly about ourselves. How did we know what was right? We weren’t the experts, after all.
That evening, we reviewed Susan’s assessment of Maisie’s problems. It read like a profile of a kid destined for prison: hoarding/stealing, aggressiveness, dominance issues. Hoarding! My gawd, we weren’t just dealing with the ups and downs of normal puppydom, we had a delinquent dog on our hands. This was not what we had opted for. Yikes! Would Maisie be a problem dog for the rest of her life? Were we capable of training her? Did we want that responsibility? Our attitude toward Maisie quickly changed from devotion to disappointment and distress, and we considered returning her to her breeder.
Out of desperation, I suggested we try another professional. This time we chose a dog behaviorist, not a dog trainer (the difference is significant and too involved to go into here). Our second expert arrived with a bag full of dog treats and toys; a curious, attentive, non-judgmental manner; and ready praise on her lips. This may sound Disneyish, but Maisie responded immediately to her calm, patient, non-militaristic approach.
From this woman, we learned that very smart dogs like Maisie love to learn. Their puppy energy can be directed toward the playful learning of games and commands for which they earn praise and hot-dog rewards. We learned that the idea of dominant and non-dominant dogs is outdated and that dog behaviorists understand “possession aggression” as “resource guarding.” Dogs with leadership qualities, dogs who might be leaders of their packs in the wild, have an instinct to guard and bury their food because they will be responsible for helping to feed the pack. Bravo for them!
This gets me to my takeaway point: labeling others—children, dogs, ethnicities, races, genders—affects our feelings and emotions about them. What we call them and the spin we give to those names affects how we see and respond. Which sounds better to you: possession aggression or resource guarding? How about this: Your child is bossy. Your child shows leadership ability. Your child is hyperactive. Your child is energetic.
Name-calling can reflect our basest instincts and our uncanny proclivity to project onto others exactly the aspects we dislike in ourselves. Or it can represent our better angels. We can choose. If we apply this insight to the current world stage, doesn’t it seem we have entered a time of malicious name-calling? Maybe we should consider that what we vilify in others might be something we fear in ourselves.
P.S. Maisie has won our hearts. She shows absolutely no signs of unwarranted aggression. She is the dog of our dreams.
Culture: Stories & Lit
It’s a summer day in 1994. Smoke drifts lazily toward the pale blue sky, its woody aroma penetrating the house. Looking out the kitchen window, I watch my husband Bill clear some of the acreage that will be our back yard. Bill drags a tree limb toward the fire. Carrying a small branch in his mouth, a stray dog follows close behind. He places the limb beside the fire, then follows Bill to retrieve more brush.
We had heard about a mutt who helped neighbors clean the creek after a hard rain. It had to be the same dog. The stray had been sleeping on a back porch of a nearby house, and each morning, the woman who lived there gave him a biscuit, his food for the day. Like hoboes of yesteryear, this dog apparently believed in working for his handouts.
I watch the dog leave as Bill enters the house. A few days later, he’s back. Our toddler grandson, playing in the front yard, falls and cries, and the dog goes to him. Our grandson stops crying and puts his arm around the dog. They lean toward each other, and our grandson laughs. Bill says, “We’re going to keep him.”
That’s how the medium-sized, shorthaired dog with one blue eye and one brown eye became a member of our family. Our neighbor said he was the ugliest dog she had ever seen.
Like most homeless dogs, he had ear mites, worms and fleas aplenty; he was also intact. The vet neutered him and made sure he was rid of all parasites. I named him Freddie Flealoader.
He learned quickly that there were things he could not do in the house, but he had a sneaky streak. He slept on the couch when we were gone, then jumped down when he heard our car engine. Our daughter had a hound named Copper. When Freddie escaped, he and Copper could be heard late in the night, yapping and running through the woods. No one’s perfect (but Freddie came close).
As time marched relentlessly forward, Copper died and we all grew older. Our three grandsons became young men.
Sleeping soundly, aging Freddie would move his feet, surely dreaming of running through the woods with Copper. He survived a stroke, and then, during what turned out to be his last year, his vet removed a large malignant growth from his mouth. By that time, he had been with us for 19 years, which made him more than 100 in human terms. Chasing his tail and enjoying life, he was still amazing.
Freddie’s last day came in September 2013. He had a terrible night, and in the early morning, I took him to the yard. His back legs were weak. When he stepped on the wooden walk leading to the deck, he couldn’t navigate the first step. Having been a reasonable fellow all his life, he simply lay down.
I removed the leash, came in the house to tell Bill and then called our daughter. It was seven on a Saturday morning, and I knew I had awakened her, but she and her husband were at our house within 10 minutes.
The vet clinic didn’t open until 9 on Saturdays, so we assembled our lawn chairs around Freddie and drank mugs of coffee and tea. Because he liked nothing better than being near his family, he was content. Wagging his tail, Freddie looked up at me with his cataract-clouded eyes as if to say, I know you can fix it.
Freddie’s incredible age could not be reversed. I couldn’t fix it.
The dreaded time arrived. My daughter wrapped a towel around Freddie, and her husband gently picked him up and placed him in the back of their SUV. Rain was beginning to come down hard, and by the time they reached the vet’s office, it was a torrent. Still, a vet assistant came out to their vehicle and administered the life-ending injection. She was drenched by the time she re-entered the office. That’s dedication.
As I write this, Freddie rests in our pet cemetery in the same yard where he carried branches to the fire with Bill so long ago. The dog hair and the soiled foam bed are gone, but Freddie remains in our recollections. His barks—at strangers, at grasshoppers, at deer— echo through time. His wagging tail, his quick snap when offered food, his devil-dog eyes: they stay with us. Our loved ones, although gone, live on in our memories.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Mother, Mutts and Mercies
Patches joined our family as a puppy when I was two, so she was 13 when I accidentally killed her. She was a mutt and looked like the RCA dog, all white with a brown patch over one eye, but 10 pounds bigger. She had 13 puppies in her first litter, which I took to mean she was Catholic, like our family of nine kids.
Patches licked everyone who came to the house: the Fuller Brush man, the Bourbeau brothers who lived across the street, even my crazy Aunt Madge. Patches smiled like a person, and when she was excited, she pranced, her nails clicking on the kitchen’s linoleum floor like castanets. Otherwise, she was the sole calm presence in the cyclone of our loud, melodramatic family.
However, one thing did upset this otherwise placid dog: explosions, like fireworks and thunder. During thunderstorms, I sometimes crawled with her into her doghouse and held her. Her doghouse smelled like popcorn, like her feet. But holding her never quieted her trembling. After one particularly bad storm, I vowed to find a way to help her overcome this.
I had few friends then, not even in my family. I wanted most to be included by my older brother, Jay, and my cousin, Roy, both jocks, both popular. I was pudgy, smart and solitary. I didn’t know why, but I always irritated Jay, and he and Roy banned me from their fort in the woods. Once, I offered to line the trails to the fort with white birch branches. I thought it would look cool. They agreed, and after I did this, I thought I was in; I tried to join them in the fort, and they pinned me to the ground and stuffed pine needles and dog crap in my mouth.
So Patches was not only my best friend, she was my only friend.
The Scantic, a small river brimming with brown trout and foot-long white suckers, coursed from one end of our western Massachusetts farm town to the other. Every summer for years, Patches and I hiked behind our house in the woods along the Scantic, just the two of us. Sometimes I fished. Other times, we just walked for hours.
Patches never seemed happier than during these outings. Me too. I picked bouquets of wildflowers: daisies, yellow flag irises, flame-red Indian paintbrushes, blue cornflowers and my favorite, Queen Anne’s lace—hundreds of white florets with a few red petals in the center, “a drop of Christ’s blood,” my aunt taught me. Sometimes I’d pick gloriously scented snow-white water lilies, which meant walking into the stinking mud of the swamps. We came home filthy.
I always handed the flowers to my mother, who was loving to all of us, but unsentimental by nature. “Put them in a vase,” she said when I presented my bouquets, and never anything else. I was the sort of boy who picked flowers for his mother, and in our traditional family, boys didn’t do that. Her response made me feel embarrassed, made me aware of my difference, but I still gave her flowers every week.
At that time in my life, given that I was a social misfit, I gorged on books. I’d often turn on a light at four in the morning to read, and this drove Jay, with whom I shared a bedroom, into red-faced rages because I woke him, and because he hated me for being such an egghead.
One night when I was 13 and alone in my bedroom, my mom walked in. From the top of my dresser, she picked up a book I was reading, Howl, by the Beat poet Alan Ginsberg, which had, among many other indecencies, explicit descriptions of sexual acts with his lover, Peter Orlofsky. This was my first introduction to homosexual love as something to be celebrated.
She held the book in the air and looked me in the eye.
“I just want you to know that I know that you’re reading this,” she said, calmly. After her announcement, she set the book down lightly on my dresser and slipped out of the room. At first, I felt dread, then relief and confusion. Why didn’t she forbid me to read the book? I was aware of my attraction to boys, but didn’t think of myself as gay. I knew adult men in our town whom my brothers and I suspected were gay, all of them recluses and outcasts. I would never be one of them— would I?
I now know that she understood I was gay long before I did. In that moment, with a mother’s love, she chose to disregard a sin that her church taught her would deny a person entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The morning I accidentally killed Patches, the two of us found ourselves home alone. This rarely happened. The day evolved perfectly for the plan I’d concocted. A thunderstorm rumbled in the valley to the south, and I had stolen a pack of firecrackers—12 on a single fuse—from my dad’s underwear drawer. These, and my best intentions, created the perfect opportunity to cure her of her fear. Or so I thought.
From inside the house, I listened as the storm approached and the first booms of thunder echoed in our valley. Seconds later, Patches, who had been lying on the grass in the back yard, stood and bolted up the back stairs. If I hadn’t opened the door, she would have dived for cover into her doghouse; instead, she sprinted to the basement and squeezed behind the washing machine, shaking.
I ran downstairs after her and crawled behind the washer to be with her. In this cramped space, where moving an inch meant scratching myself on the rough concrete wall, I held her close to me. She trembled, she didn’t struggle, and she didn’t lick my face as she always did when I held her. Then, as I had rehearsed in my mind a dozen times, I lit a match, then the fuse, and tossed the firecrackers over the washing machine, 10 feet away.
I squeezed Patches against my chest as the firecrackers exploded in a rapid chain: POW-POW-POW-POW. The small room’s concrete floor and walls amplified sound, and the blasts echoed far louder than they would have done outdoors. My eardrums hummed, muting all sound. I looked down at Patches. She still hung in my arms. And she still shuddered.
What went wrong? She knew I loved her. This knowledge and a hug, I was convinced, would prove to her that the firecracker bangs weren’t to be feared. But I had failed her. If anything, her shaking seemed worse.
I stayed with her, huddled behind the washer. Eventually, she stopped trembling. I settled her onto a blanket, and she slept. I tiptoed upstairs to my bedroom, my ears still throbbing.
That afternoon, after my hearing began to return, I heard some of my siblings come home. Within a minute, Matt, my 12-year-old brother, came running up from the basement.
“Patches is walking in circles!” he hollered.
“What?” I yelled. I ran downstairs to the basement. Patches’ head tilted to the left and she zigzagged as she walked. I stood 10 feet in front of her and called her name.
“Here, Patches!” She lurched toward me and then veered to the left, then lurched toward me and veered again to the left. I felt my heart lurch too. Something was terribly wrong.
I held her. Within minutes, my parents came home. They picked her up and put her in the back of our family car, an early ’70s white woody station wagon, and drove her to the vet. I slunk back to my room and waited for them to return. Finally, four hours later, my parents drove into the driveway. All of us ran to the car and stood waiting. When they got out, Patches didn’t jump out after them, and when they shut the car doors, Cory, my six-year-old sister, started bawling. Silently, we flanked them into the kitchen, where they explained that the vet had told them that Patches had had a stroke, and she likely wouldn’t recover, given her age. With the vet, they decided that the best thing to do was to put her to sleep.
Today, now that I’m a vet, I know that it isn’t possible to pin with certainty the cause of a stroke on a particular outside event. But it’s also possible, even likely, that the extreme stress of the basement explosions kicked loose a blood clot to jam a small artery or even speed her heartbeat enough to burst a fragile vessel in her old brain.
Everyone was too stunned to speak. Some walked outside; others, like me, tiptoed to our rooms.
For more than 20 years, up to my graduation from veterinary school, I spoke to no one about that day. After Patches’ death, I built a shrine near a giant oak tree, the only tree that stood in the middle of a mile-long cornfield with a path running through it that we had walked together a hundred times. Under the tree there, I built a cross out of sticks. I left her threadbare leash, a cellophane-wrapped photo of the two of us and flowers.
In the ways that we communicate with our beloved dead pets, I spoke to Patches in the following years. I asked her forgiveness. And, at some inexplicable, fundamental level, I know she said yes. She gave me her forgiveness.
In later years, I felt it most during solitude, strolling the pebbled shores of Lake Champlain near my college in Burlington, Vt., or later along the lotus-covered ponds in Ueno Park, Tokyo, where I lived for three years as a teacher.
Gradually, her forgiveness spread through my world and made new beginnings possible; it was as if a mile-high blanket of oxygen covered the planet, letting me breathe with ease even at the steepest heights.
In Tokyo, I made the decision to apply to veterinary school. I also accepted I was gay. Before I could come to that, I first needed to forgive others for their unkindnesses, my brother’s and cousin’s especially, and myself for believing them. Because at last, I understood that no one needed to be forgiven for being gay.
Coming out as gay was not an act of defiance against church and family. More than anything, it was a celebration of the mercies that had made my adult life possible: those of a knowing mother and a smiling white dog.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Nick was my husband’s dog. But, come June, he tagged along every time I ventured out to the garden with my picking bucket. Like me, the big yellow Lab knew that nothing in the world tastes as good as a strawberry plucked hot from the vine on a summer day. I think of him now, with this year’s bumper crop of berries, as I lean over to snap the stem of each scarlet jewel between my thumbnail and index finger.
Years ago, a friend gave me these plants, an ever-bearing variety that yields fruit almost until the first frost. Strawberry plants usually produce for just two years and then must be replaced using the offspring or “suckers” from the original plant, and most people grow them in regimented rows with ample space between the rows for the pickers to navigate. But mine have been allowed to roam—much to the dismay of my straight-line, engineer husband—wandering aimlessly around the front of our vegetable garden, replanting themselves among the flowers, rhubarb and herbs with which they share the space.
Picking berries in my patch presents a challenge even for the average two-footed being, but this Retriever’s four club-sized paws bouncing atop my bumpy red-and-green crazy quilt spelled disaster for the tender fruit. So, Nick soon came to understand that his place was on the perimeter. There he would wait, brow wrinkled, nose twitching, ears pricked forward until I called, “Hey Nick ... Wanna berry?”
One for Nick, one for the bucket, one for me: that was how my picking often went.
Nick left us at age 14 and a half—a good long life for a big dog but not nearly enough for me. I miss him every day. He was the only fruit-loving dog I’ve ever known, dancing on his hind legs to pick green apples from the gnarled Red Delicious over by the pasture as soon as they grew to size in August or September. “Where’s Nick?” somebody would wonder, and we’d go hunting to find him under the old tree, sucking the remains of an apple core.
He had a taste for cantaloupe and watermelon as well, though he didn’t participate in the kids’ seed-spitting contests. He ate bananas, and even developed a foolproof way of picking raspberries, sauntering between the rows of canes, lifting that droopy upper lip and positioning his teeth just so to roll each purple pillow from its thorny stem into his soft Retriever’s mouth. Still, his favorite was strawberries.
This dog’s taste for strawberries allowed him a kind of symbiosis with the birds. Birds are strawberry lovers, too, and they can do a lot of damage. It should come as no surprise that a robin, for example, will bypass all the piddling undersized berries and pick the biggest, shiniest globe in the garden to sample first thing in the morning. These juicy morsels with a slice out of the side will spoil the rest of the berries in your bucket and so have to be thrown away unless you have a hungry Lab waiting nearby.
In my experience, strawberries hide as a matter of practice. Under their big clover-shaped leaves, they conceal their ripeness. Not wanting to be picked, they lurk in the shadows of sunflowers that have come up voluntarily next to the compost bin. As I reach into the waxy leaves of sweet marjoram that has surprisingly returned to my Pennsylvania garden, my fingers find the most luscious berry, hot in the sun, effervescing a delightful scent with hints of oregano—a perfect specimen, save for one ignominious gash on its crimson shoulder.
Hey, Nicky ... How about a berry? I call silently, closing my eyes, expecting to see my golden boy there next to Grandma Graham’s peony bush, doing his happy dance, bouncing first on one oafish front paw and then the other, ears cocked, mouth open, pearly whites just waiting for the toss.
Finding only a disappointing empty place in the sun, I bite off the good half, ruby juice rolling down my chin. And I savor the sweetness, knowing that even in dog heaven there can be nothing better than a strawberry, fresh from the patch on a summer’s day.
Culture: Science & History
Robert Weintraub talks about Judy, a remarkable dog
We recently talked with Robert Weintraub, author of No Better Friend, our favorite book of 2015. This remarkable story about Judy, the only canine POW of World War II, has won the praise of many critics, and was selected, too, by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan as one of last year’s best. This inspiring (and harrowing) story reminds us just how inimitable our bond is with dogs.
Q: No Better Friend is certainly an apt title for a book about an amazing dog and the intense bonds she shared with the people in her life. What made you decide on this title?
A: Well, in all honesty, the marketing department at Little, Brown went through a whole host of options before we settled on this. But No Better Friend, I thought, captured Judy’s incredible loyalty and unique comradeship with the servicemen, both before and during her imprisonment. She took the saw, “man’s best friend,” to a whole new level.
Q: What inspired you to write about this subject—not just Judy, but also, WWII POWs and the Pacific theater?
A: Once I discovered Judy’s story, I knew I would have to capture the larger picture of her fellow prisoners, Frank Williams in particular. That led me to the fall of Singapore and the mad dash to Sumatra amid total Japanese domination in the South China Sea. Had Judy been in France, of course, I would have told that story, so in a sense, she took me to the Pacific. But despite their intense deprivations, the POWs of Sumatra have been largely ignored by history, so I was rather glad to be able to shine a light on a subsection of WWII that was more shadowy than others.
Q: You come from a sports journalism background—is there anything from that perspective that especially drew you to Judy’s story?
A: Certainly the qualities that draw people (including me) to sports—performance under duress, teamwork, strength of character—were fully on display in this story. The POWs, including (and especially) Judy, got one another through the worst possible times. They shared food despite not having enough for themselves. They put themselves in harm’s way to prevent fellow prisoners from taking beatings from the guards. They nursed one another through terrible disease and suffering. Judy and her fellow POWs rose above the nadir of humanity to display the best qualities humans have to offer. Obviously, the stakes were far higher than in any sporting contest, but the characteristics were similar, just writ large.
Q: It’s difficult to read about this period in history—about a war waged against a country that practiced extreme mistreatment of captives, unhindered by the Geneva convention. It makes stories about survivors like Judy and Frank Williams even more startling, and the details of what they, and many others, went through as POWs that much harder to digest. That must have been very challenging as you researched the topic.
A: I considered myself something of a buff on military history, WWII in particular, even before I began the research, but nothing prepares you for firsthand accounts of the brutality and shocking inhumanity of the camps. The legacy of the German concentration camps somewhat obscures the horrors in the Japanese camps, at least to the average person, so I thought it was important not to shy away from the terror tactics and sadistic barbarity practiced by the Japanese (and their Korean lackeys). In the course of writing, I found that any temptation I had to ease up on the worst of the offenses was offset by admiration for the POWs and Judy’s ability to withstand them. So my perspective tilted; I actually wanted to highlight the atrocities, for they presented Judy and her friend’s courage and endurance in greater relief.
Q: I tagged more pages in this book than in most that I review. Judy demonstrated so many instances of valor, intelligence, loyalty and, at times, cunning. Which ones stand out for you?
A: Yes, Judy made the exceptional look almost routine. Before she was even taken prisoner, she had several amazing episodes. At one point she took to guiding a small band of shipwreck survivors across the Sumatran interior in a quest for escape, through a deep rainforest thick with insects, mud and predators. Judy was actually slashed by a crocodile during this long march, but kept to her station as ranger, leading the group to (perceived) safety on the opposite coast.
There was the time when she was being transported by Japanese prison ship and the boat was sunk by a torpedo. She narrowly escaped, and once in the water, went about saving the lives of flailing shipmates instead of worrying for her own safety. In the camps, she repeatedly threw herself at guards in order to distract them from beating up fellow prisoners. One time she was shot and slightly wounded while thrusting herself between attacker and prey. Judy obviously put herself in grave danger during these episodes. But she continued to stand up for her fellow POWs right until liberation. Hers was truly a story not just of survival, but also of spirited resistance.
Q: What do you think made Judy so exceptional? As I read this book, I looked at my dogs and wondered what they would have done in the same circumstances. Do you have a dog?
A: We have young children, so we are waiting until they are a bit older before we get a dog of our own. But I grew up with a very loyal, very spirited Golden Retriever. Although he wasn’t nearly as intelligent as Judy, I like to think that he would have displayed the same courage and stamina. I don’t know that it’s possible to compare an average domestic canine with Judy, however. While she wasn’t a trained military dog, she was a mascot on a navy ship from a very young age, and was baptized to the sights and sounds (and smells!) of war, as well as death and destruction. Even before that, as a very young pup, she escaped from her kennel and survived on the streets of Shanghai for months before being brought home again. Clearly, this was a dog with something special inside her; an essential piece of her welcomed action and adventure, and when she faced the worst, she rose above it.
Q: What do you think it is about dogs that draws people like Frank Williams to the realization that, as you write, “His love for her was noble”?
A: Clearly, we recognized dogs’ special kinship with us at some point in their transition from wild animal to domesticated friend. In Frank’s case specifically, I was putting his love and loyalty to Judy in the context of his experience during the war. He was captured early on without putting up much of a fight (he was a radar technician in the Royal Air Force). After years of awful treatment in the camps, he had every reason to give up and let death take him, as so many other prisoners did. But Judy’s battling example shook him from his lethargy, and instilled in him the seed to fight on, survive each day, and put faith in a better time ahead. In exchange, he shared every bit of devotion he had with Judy, even risking his life to procure official POW status for her. In the worst situation imaginable, even worse than the war itself, Frank found the nobility that had eluded him while he was a free man. That was thanks to a dog—a special dog, true. But the qualities all dogs bring out in people is what makes our relationship with them so remarkable.
Q: I understand that a young readers’ version will be out soon. How did you recast the story to make it appropriate for that age group without diminishing its essence?
A: That version will be out on May 3, thank you for mentioning that! It was a difficult task to rework the narrative for younger readers, in part because I had never done it before, and in part because of the material. I had to walk a fine line between highlighting the inhumanity of the camps, which made Judy and Frank’s bond so special, without overplaying the brutality. I also found it necessary to trim much of the surrounding historical material in order to concentrate on the story at the heart of the book, the relationship between Judy and Frank. Not to worry, however; a series of sidebars provides historical context while not diverting the main narrative.
Q: What do you hope younger readers learn from your book?
A: I hope kids everywhere, including Asia (there is a Chinese edition), learn that love, loyalty and friendship are unconquerable, no matter how horrifying the surrounding conditions. And that while humans are forever finding ways to treat one another badly, the special relationships we have with dogs can transcend the often-shaky relationships we have with each other.
For more see our review of No Better Friend, plus an excerpt from the book.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Picking up the pieces after a breakup
Musician, writer, actor, Portlandia creator, Carrie Brownstein is an alt-scene megastar. The following excerpt from her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, picks up after the split up of her band Sleater-Kinney, and we see her putting her abundant skills to help shelter animals.
Instead of playing or thinking about music, I dove into my volunteer work at the Oregon Humane Society, which is just about the only way I knew how to deal with the loss. If you’re wondering how sad I was, you’d never know by talking to me, but you would know it by the fact that I won the Oregon Humane Society Volunteer of the Year Award in 2006, the year of Sleater- Kinney’s demise.
I clocked in over one hundred hours that year. I developed new programs to help long-term canine shelter residents get adopted, I made laminated flyers replete with photos I took of the dogs and added pat, inspirational, and euphemistic phrases like “If you love a toothy kiss, you’ll love Buster” to promote specific dogs. I walked them on the shelter grounds and even took them on field trips. I taught the more rambunctious dogs to sit, wait, go to their bed, how to walk better on the leash. I sat in the lobby wearing my teal volunteer apron with two large front pockets gritty with dog treat remnants, torn and gooey from overeager puppy mouths, stretched from too much wear and not enough washing. I greeted customers in the lobby, grateful to be in a uniform, just one of many, anonymous and near invisible in a place where frumpiness and depression thrive. The dogs I brought with me to the lobby were my interlocutors, my translators; they bounded up to customers and I channeled their optimism. They lived in the moment, grateful for the interaction, and so was I. I had a purpose, even if part of that purpose was hosing down feces-covered kennels. The dogs’ needs seemed simple, and I required simple needs: to have somewhere to be. It’s easy to feel sated when all you’re asking for in life is food, water, and some gentle petting.
I befriended the older women who made up the majority of the other volunteers. Retirees and former powerhouses in realms like consulting and finance, bored at home, sapped by stale marriages, with reticent or far-flung adult children and ill or dying friends, these women felt useful and appreciated. We formed a constellation of surrogates who likely should have been paying the dogs for therapy; it could have funded the entire shelter operation. We cried when dogs were euthanized but also when they were adopted; we had been seeking comfort in the constant and could barely deal with change. The term “shelter” seemed to apply as much to the humans as it did to the animals.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A valentine from the heart.
I have to admit that, for a few weeks following the adoption of my new dog—an ex-racing Greyhound I named Elvis (Hey! Costello, not Presley!)—I was a bit concerned. Not about him. He seemed like a nice enough dog.
No, it was me I was worried about.
After all, Elvis was well behaved. Gentle. Mild-mannered. Practically perfect. And he was certainly pretty enough, with big doe-eyes and an irresistible coat of honey and velvet. Why, it was enough to make anyone fall head over heels at first sight.
Except I didn’t. And I was confused. Where was that overwhelming rush of love I was expecting to feel when Golden State Greyhound Adoption (GoldenGreyhounds.com) first delivered my new dog to my home? Was there something wrong with me? Or was Elvis not the dog I was meant to have? Where was the bond? How could I not instantly love my new pet?
And therein lay the answer: He was new. How could I love a creature I didn’t know?
Ah, but today. Ask me today if I love my dog and I can rattle off a litany that makes my eyes mist over and my heart swell with affection.
I love the happy little tippy-tap dance Elvis does whenever I ask, “Do you want…?” because he knows these words will be followed with the offer of either a cookie or a walk. In the eyes of Elvis, both of these are extremely good things and his transparent joy over such simple pleasures is a sight to behold.
I love the way Elvis greets me at the front door every time I walk through it. “You came back! You returned! This is so great! You’re home! Wow!” Whether I’ve been gone five minutes or five hours, his enthusiastic response never varies. He celebrates my homecoming each and every time, never letting me forget that, regardless of what’s happening elsewhere in my life, in this little corner of the world I am loved. Maybe I missed a deadline at work or was cut off on the freeway. Maybe I’m feeling tired or stressed, discouraged or alone. Never mind. When I enter my home and my dog leaps into my arms, I forget my worries and for that moment, am awash in pure joy.
I love the way Elvis sits alongside me while I work at my computer. Sometimes he rests his head in my lap. Other times. he just stares at me, his Bambi eyes brimming over with love. It occurs to me that if I could get a man to look at me the same way, I’d be the luckiest person on earth. And then my dog leans against me and sighs a contented sigh, and I feel like I already am.
I love watching Elvis sort through his toy basket. After selecting the toy he’s going to play with, he flips it in the air or dances around it, amusing himself no end. I find toys scattered throughout the house, evidence of his activities while I’m at work. His playtime concludes when he tires himself out and falls asleep in his La-Z-Dog recliner, often with his head resting upon a beloved toy.
I love to hear him snore. It reminds me that my dog is nearby, and that if I want tangible evidence of all that is good and right with my life, I just have reach down and stroke his silky neck, clasp his twitching paw or feel his beating heart. When he’s curled up like a doughnut on his pillow, his snoring is an affirmation of the deep sleep that comes with feeling comfortable and content. Elvis is a long way from the cold crate he once called home.
I love the back of his soft, floppy ears. No reason why. I just do.
I love the way Elvis trots alongside me when we go for a walk and he presses his head to the side of my thigh. Despite the freedom his leash affords, he wants to feel his human nearby. Occasionally my lovely, loving boy looks up at me with eyes so happy it brings a lump to my throat.
I love watching Elvis gallop across the dog park chasing other dogs. Not to earn money for a racetrack, but to play with his pals—fellow Greyhounds BJ and Champ, Sadie the Lab, and Rikki the Border Collie. My dog’s speed and grace remind me of his former life and how lucky I am that his final race was for my heart.
A race he won. Maybe not in record time, but definitely hands down.
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