Saturday, December 29, 2007

New Year's Revolutions

To be a dog.

That was Tony's recommendation to me on the phone tonight; I can't claim it as my own. But it represents the highest wisdom, the most ached-for attainment. Tony (who should know, he who is faced with the greatest of consuming fears every minute of his days, and he who lives with two exemplars, each in their own divergent ways, of open-flowered dogness) offered this possibility to me as I recounted the past few hours to him: a twilight walk with Nelly through my favorite woods, a gift to myself, during which I felt inexplicably happy, full of hope. I found myself smiling. I allowed myself, knowing that to do so--even if only to the dark-stained tree trunks rising all around me--would be to intensify the effect, as well as the cause; smiling begets happiness, even as happiness begets smiles. They release intoxicating brain chemicals every bit as tastily fizzy as the first sip of prosecco (pop). I thought: This is OK. And Life is OK. People were right when they told me, no, promised me, I was going to be OK. So I smiled at the people I passed on the trail: we are simple, we humans; we can be bought for a facial expression. It changes everything, maybe the molecules in the air. People like you, when you like them first. The dogs greeted each other, exchanged their business cards, then disengaged to go see what was next in this interestingly scented universe.

Be a dog.

Then, an hour later, I'm on the phone with Tony, and the tears push up and over the dam, spilling in a crystal arc of never-ending liquidity. "What's the matter with me, Tony? Just a little bit ago, I was happy. I didn't know why, but I felt like I had gotten somewhere, and it was good, and now here I am, like something you'd need a lot of paper towels to get up off the floor." In his hard-won sagacity, he tells me I'm on a roller coaster now--oh, this I know!--and this is simply what life will be like for a while. But we're all on a roller coaster. From birth, which is the moment you get strapped in by the attendant. That's why "roller coaster" is the Number One Cliche. "You've got to turn yourself into a dog," he goes on. "Then you can be there, in the happiness, and not think about what's behind or ahead." "What's ahead" seems, at this moment, to consist largely of tears.

I was reading Time magazine, which is not something I recommend, even if you are in the fifth grade, which is where its reading level is aimed. The cover story was the obligatory gee-whiz look at the evolution of morality in humans. (When Time does a "think" piece, watch out: your world is about to be rocked!) I would prefer to always place "morality" in quotes: I think it's another of those fictive rationales built to retroactively paper over something a) we don't want to countenance (like, for instance, the idea that everything we do is biologically based, so we cannot possibly be separate from the rest of biological creation); or b) something we wish were true, but is simply not supported by observable reality. Hey, that's OK. Make a construct! Works every time!

Terry Eagleton, one of my early intellectual crushes, points up a) above nicely (see why I liked him?) in Harper's recently when he writes, "The structure of biography is biology. For all its tribute to the individual spirit, it is our animal life that underpins it."

The article on morality was written in the same infuriating, self-cancelling style that has become the New York Times's stock in trade: "fair," "balanced" journalism apparently means you say one thing, then in the next sentence you find something to contradict it. No matter if it's patently idiotic.

But I digress, as usual. Boy do I. (But dogs digress, don't they? Isn't that rather the form of their lives, one long digression composed of digressions?)

At least the magazine calls it by its proper name: it is "vanity" to think we are unique among animals. Then it goes on to say, "What does, or ought to [my italics, to show I don't comprehend this one whit], separate us then is our highly developed state of morality." But why do we NEED to be separated? Why do we insist on it, like a child hugging to its chest the blocks it doesn't want to share? Could it be . . . vanity??

Do we behave in so-called moral ways because we revere the notion of right, or because doing right works for us? This would be B. F. Skinner's view, I guess, and Jean Donaldson's, too, if we can extrapolate the motivations of our own behavior from that of dogs. (And here my cri de coeur is "Extrapolate away!") Be a dog.

If this is true, then, morality is really a cover story for selfishness. (Or what Time calls, in a bit of poetry that clearly escaped a sleepy editor's delete key, "a mercantile business" called reciprocal altruism.)

I make a vow that in the new year I will think more about this; I will arrive at theories, conclusions, revolutionary new ways of seeing humanity, earth-altering understandings of our condition. Then I will go on dog walks. I will shake off my self-absorption, if only for an hour or two a day, then do some clicker training with my dog. And I'll write here about a more proper subject than this incessant whining about my personal heartache. It will be a relief for all of us.

There are more resolutions to come.

Nelly ate her lapin tartare on the lawn for lunch today. This is one way in which I will not be a dog. While she undoubtedly found it the most civilized thing to do--the height of her civilization, that is--I found myself in a strange state of mind as I wrapped a plastic shopping bag around my arm and then felt the interesting weight of a recently live being's refrigerated innards in my hand. It was a transporting experience. Where exactly did it take me?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Holly and the Ivy

I received my Christmas present early this year, and it's all I really want. Oh, well, all right. That's not true. I do have a small list that I have conveyed to the powers at the North Pole, a few items relating to fame, fortune, and the like, but I doubt that Santa is going to get Javier Bardem wrapped and under my tree in time. I'll just take yesterday's gift.

The snow has a nice hard crust on it, so it fools your foot every darn time. "I can walk," you think; "No, you don't," says the snow. After a moment's hesitation on the surface, crunch, down it goes, so that every step is twice the expenditure of energy as usual. But that's for a normal-sized person (as well as for the poor deer, whose sharp hooves cut through the crust, too, so you see them these days taking paths of least resistance on the plowed roads; alas, this is not the time of year they want to be expending their hard-earned calories on commuting). For Nelly, at twenty pounds, the foot of snow merely makes her taller than she is used to being. And that means she can now reach the point on the fence where the gauge is big enough for her to squirm through, or where a sag at the top permits her to go up and over. Please recall that her probable father is a dog named Houdini, whom no fence can contain. Where is the fence-scaling gene in the canine's makeup, I wonder?

In the morning when we go out to wait for the school bus, Nelly comes too, but stays inside the fence, noodling around, sniffing the tracks of whatever visited our yard the night before. It's her version of reading the morning edition. My son and I sit on the bench (at least we do when there aren't five-foot-high banks of snow pushed against it) and read together. It's a lovely time. It wasn't a lovely time yesterday when I watched Nelly scrambling over the fence and running to our neighbor's. They are my dear friends. Plus they have chickens, whom Nelly is very interested in meeting on a far more intimate level. I'm standing there helplessly watching this, both because I can't leave my eight-year-old to stay by the road alone so I can traipse all over the neighborhood trying to catch a Nelly-who-won't-be-caught, and also because it would be, as I just mentioned, bootless to try. It always is.

When she was finished there (no fresh chicken breakfast, thank goodness), she came trotting down the road toward us. Then, she had a thought. She stopped, considered something. Then gave me The Look. Her friend Willy gives The Look, too, at the end of a walk when he's trying to decide if he's going to give his human mother a heart attack as he turns to trot down the road to explore several miles of backyards. Nelly's look said, "I don't think so. I'm not through, just yet." Whereupon she crossed the road, and bounded up onto the wooded hill opposite. Then she found the carefully planted excuse of several squirrels to follow, and did so, finally disappearing out of view up and over, far away.

She is a white dog. Smaller than the snow piles that line the roadway. No one would see her before they were on top of her.

Everyone told me the holidays this year were going to be hard for me. I did not know what they meant until they were nearly on top of me. The analogue is that when I was pregnant, everyone said, "Your life is going to change in ways you could never dream." Yeah, yeah. What did they think, I was an idiot? I'm smart enough to figure that out on my own, thank you.

I wasn't. The truth of the prediction hit only when I had taken that baby home. My life was to change in ways that blew my little unsuspecting, yes, idiotic, mind. And so it is now. The holidays are hard. I keep getting thrown into the past like litter against a storm fence when a semi blows by at 80. Just putting the ornaments on the tree--the ornaments that represent a collective past, and the promise that they will always be in the box in the attic for the future collective Christmas--brought down a sadness that was so crushing I wanted to do anything to avoid feeling it. I recall depressions of the past, how psychic pain can feel so much worse than physical pain that I understand (though don't get me wrong, I am not contemplating it) the urge to wash it away with the spilling of one's own blood. The holidays are hard. They make you remember. They make you wish for what you cannot have.

After the bus came, I reluctantly turned away. I could not see Nelly; she had obviously gone far down the road, up on the hill that skirts it. I left the gate open a foot, and told myself to give myself up to a higher power: the one called luck. Because that was what was needed to bring Nelly back safely across the road when she decided to return home, luck that she would choose a moment when no car was barreling at ridiculous speed, as they often do around here, around these blind curves. I had to give up the sense that I could prevent anything, that I could change fate if fate was to visit this day. I was not entirely successful in letting go, however, because I was writing a little narrative in which the woman who has just lost nearly everything then loses the little dog who is much of her comfort in a time of mourning. And right before the holidays, too. I admit to being morbid and hysterical. Yes, indeedy.

But still I walked back to the house. I made myself: an act of leaving. I was going to go in and shut the door, go about my business, try to tamp down the hope that I would soon hear Nelly's sharp bark asking to come back in, saying, I'm done out there for now.

I approached the porch steps. Something came toward me from the back of the house. Nelly stood and stared. I stared back. How did she get here, appearing from the opposite direction she had disappeared? How did she get back into the yard, when the only way to do so from the road is to come through the same gate I had just come from?

It was a Christmas miracle. The only explanation is that there can be no explanation. That I have to let that desire go, too. The holidays are going to be hard. This gift was easy.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Nearer, My Dog, to Thee

When did I realize that I love Nelly so much? That I have the kind of dog others call "so sweet" and then I get a bit oozy inside?

It happened slowly, that's why I can't afix a date. Real love grows at about the same rate as a rubber tree. Try watching one to see. But new leaves do appear. The trunk gets slowly bigger. Or, to switch metaphors, since one is not enough to cover this topic, you build up to 60 mph, you don't start there. I wish I knew the mechanism by which this occurs. It has something to do with time, and important experiences shared. In the case of Nelly and me, or indeed anyone else I've ever loved, "important" experiences are designated by the amount of danger they contain. This can be physical, or it can be emotional; danger is danger, and sets your heart to racing all the same. And oh lordy, we've been through some times together! I had initially thought I'd be writing here primarily about Nelly's close calls, maybe rating them on a scale of, say, one to five mortar shells. By now, mysteriously, I am suffused with love for her, especially when I look at her from some distance, which gives the ideal view. Then I see her.

Those cumulative hours I have waited in the cold, the dark, the wet slowly seeping into my boots, the briers scratching my face as I try for a shot at getting her tail at least; those minutes ticking by, piling up, are the blocks that build love. Finally they accrete into a mountain, and you are there, standing elevated above the world, risen to a breathtaking view, by love.

There is the thing we call "love at first sight," and believe me, I am not immune to its especial charge. Gunpowder, it's packed with. The eyes start the spark, then boom. Anyone who would like to deny we are merely a vessel for the wash of chemicals released by various glands, triggered by currents in the brain, has never caught the eye of someone at a party or on the subway and felt things running through the body that are among the most extraordinary feelings we can feel. I don't have words for them, sorry. They are way beyond words. Somehow, "chemistry at first sight" doesn't do it. But you know the zinging, the pinging, the dear hope, the rocketing possibilities, that all spring into being in this shattered second.

The particular breed bias I have--I've got border collies on the brain, you have your "type," be it goldens or pugs--is a form of this. It works with human breeds, too. To my final day, I will feel a jolt when I spy a curly-haired Jewish poet-philosopher type, because he will remind me of someone long ago: a love at first sight that grew into the real thing. They don't get better than that.

Maybe breed bias is a sort of manufactured love at first sight. I see a BC, and am brought back to the memory, physically imprinted on my being, of the love I bore for Mercy-the-mostly-border-collie. By the time she was ten years old, it encompassed the world. I have a friend who lost her son at sixteen. I don't have words for this, either. But she described the love of a mother for her child as a great engine, which stirs into life on the day of birth. Each subsequent day, it gathers power. The pistons are fired faster and faster; the steam builds. Hotter, faster, hotter, faster. Every day, that love chugs and chugs and chugs. Finally the clatter, the great breathing muscle of power, is going so hard you wonder the machine doesn't explode. That's love.

Nelly has become a piece of me. I need her, want her, to be near. I don't sleep as well if she is not pressing her small warm weight against my body. Without her, something is missing, and I feel it even if I don't name it. She still goes on heartstoppingly extended walkabout--she's a canid, after all, and has some 100-proof brain chemicals (the ones that say "rabbit in vicinity!") even stronger than those that make hearts grow fonder. But she too, increasingly, wants to be with me. She eventually, eventually, comes back. And when we are together the earth starts its revolutions again. I don't know if I would die without the love of a dog. I only know I don't want to live without it.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Place You Love Is Gone

When I lie in my bed, all I need do to enter the past is turn my head. In an instant I pass through years. Through the window I catch a slice of a great red barn, silver metal roof, that has been standing a hundred years or more. It is itself made from parts of other, older barns, so its history encompasses others' histories; in this respect it is like me. It is only steps from the house, but I think of how far it is on a dark and cold winter night, one perhaps deep in drifting snow and sharp wind. I have read that people had to string ropes from their homes to their barns so that farmers wouldn't be lost forever between them in the swallowing snow when they went of a dark morning to tend the livestock.

It takes only a small sleight of mind to imagine this lonely scene out my window, so unreconstructed is the view out back of the house. This is one of the many gifts this place has given up: the ability to live in the midst of a past so easily called up it is almost here.

Looking at this scenery, devoid of much human mark except for rail fencing, depending how you allow your eyes to frame it, inspires inexcusable bouts of corniness. I will try to suppress them. But it almost hurts to be here now, now I know I must leave.

We got this place through the misfortunes of the family who preceded us in it. I have felt the weight of this sometimes. Our luck. Their loss.

When I looked about, I saw dreams to come. The old shed by the mulberry tree, where in the late spring we would wade out in the tall grass and fill buckets with warm berries, and eat half of them before we could even make it back up onto the porch. The shed would become a playhouse for our son, a place of his own.

The barn, I wasn't sure if it would become home again to horses and goats, or if its new reclamation should make it a temple to creativity: we could show our friends' paintings, have readings, host children's plays, and barn dances of course. It was already a temple anyway, a temple of space, rising up to the heights of the great roof, making you rise with it.

The gardens were struggling, and every spring I would add one or two perennials, every fall a handful of bulbs. Someday, I imagined, they would look just like those English cottage gardens, laying down swaths of color, packed in and blurring like an Impressionist canvas.

Most of all, this place has been a Disneyland for dogs: due to its exceptional topography, once we fenced and gated the road side, the back could be left open--no dog was going to leave home via a swamp. And so it has been Nelly's playground, and also the foxes', the deer's, the coyotes'. We were all here together, and what a privilege it's been.

We are pack animals, too. Nelly's excitement on seeing Willy and Dixie, or Nora and Malcolm, or Juni and Izzy, boils over like pasta water on a hot stove (did I mention she's a screamer?). She needs her mates, her community. And I need mine. I found it on this road. Bonnie, Pam, Jeanette: dear friends, dear friends. We have the keys to one another's houses. We give each other as emergency contacts. We share our produce, sometimes our eggs. We lend our ears and our shoulders. "Could you please take my dog for a walk today?" "Can you come over for a minute; I need to talk." "I'm going to the store, can I pick up something for you?" This is the ideal village, the one they always talk about being lost. I found it.

And because of the same misfortune that now has befallen us, someone else will have the luck to find this place, its beauty that was like nutrition to me. My loss, their luck. Perhaps it will be a weight on them, sometimes.

Change is inevitable, so they say. I know this; I accept this. Right now, I embrace it, in moments--it's like knowing your birthday is on the horizon: Oh, damn. Another year, resting on my shoulders, as your years do on you (I sometimes remember to remind myself that all of us currently on the planet are aging at exactly the same rate; it makes me feel a little better about hanging out with the occasional fashion model friend). Still, hey--presents, cake, a party! But let me invite you in to the particularities of this change. In the future, I will also fill you in on the unexpected gifts of what is unseen, but waiting.

I'll leave my flowers; someone else will watch them bloom. I'll leave my fountain, the sound of which made me feel cool in the summer. I'll leave this dogs' paradise. I'll leave my pack, and I can't imagine finding one again as tight, as perfect. I'll leave behind the unfulfilled dreams, the tumbledown outbuildings; the treehouse whose site was selected but remains a pencil drawing in the brain. My head, at any rate, comes up with plans at a rate that the most dedicated construction crew could not keep up with even if I'd kept them on retainer and housed them in the barn (which they'd have had to have repaired first).

On Halloween, I had a bonfire party out by the barn, a big fire blazing in the fire circle. We ate chili and cornbread; we talked, as fires tend to make us do. I had titled it a Burn the Past bonfire; this sounded brave to me, the announcement of a ritual when a ritual seemed so desperately required. Everyone was encouraged to throw into the flames something that reminded them of something that was over. I had my contributions. I went through the motions, as rituals are comprised of motions. But it felt hollow. It felt like whistling in the dark. I wanted it to be true, that I could forget as soon as the mementos were ash, but I couldn't. I didn't let anyone know, however. At the end, someone remarked that maybe they would host the same party next year. I spoke up brightly, "Or maybe I'll do it again here!" They were silent. I had forgotten I would no longer be here. They looked at me as you would a person with terminal illness who insists on talking about the future.

My son had painted a picture of the phoenix that is to rise from these flames. The phoenix, I trust, is me and him together. The phoenix will be the new house into which we will move soon; I imagine it to resemble the wish house I have carried in my mind's eye for twenty-five years now. I know the dangers of having dreams that are too specific, too much like a shopping list. I cannot picture the person who I hope one day will allow me to trust, and to love, again. If I do, I may walk past him when he, unrecognizable, appears.

I know we can find a place that will be good and happy for both of us, and for Nelly. I daren't hope we could find one whose landscapes, framed by every window, would make me feel so goddamn lucky. I daren't hope we could find a pack as fine as we have belonged to here. But maybe. And other flowers. In summer.

Friday, November 30, 2007


Deep inside me, there is something that probably looks like an egg timer. I hear it ticking. I don't know who put it there. But it rings loudly, insistently, about three and a half hours after I leave the house. It's not asking me to turn the oven off. It wants me to come home to my dog. It makes a loud noise so that I might know she needs to relieve herself.

The thought of someone being unable to meet his or her basic needs--the itch that needs to be scratched, the wings that need to be spread, the stomach that needs to be fed, the bladder that needs to be emptied--it's like a burr under my tail. I can't bloody stand it. The dog who is left home for ten hours (and there are a lot of them, left by otherwise "good" people) is left in anxiety, boredom, and an aching need to go to the bathroom. For some reason, I feel their pain. Way too much.

Who put that there in me? I sort of wish they'd get it out: I often feel like the character played by Andie MacDowell in sex, lies and videotape. She sits in her shrink's office while her life falls apart, and she frets about the garbage barges denied landfall, forced to circle endlessly without having their basic needs (unloading) met. Displacement? Yeah, sure. In the sense that all empathy is displacement.

Empathy is two burrs under two tails: one a real one, the other a phantom pain borrowed by the brain with an imagination, and a history of having known burrs.

One of the great pleasures of parenthood is eavesdropping on childish conversations. Children's belief that grownups aren't somehow human--I remember that I myself had no conception what those tall, bossy beings actually were; I only knew they sure weren't me--causes them to speak to their friends as if you weren't there. Maybe you're not. But the other day, I was privy to an extraordinary discussion. An eight-year-old (guess whose) was somberly lecturing his six-year-old compatriot on the nature of empathy. He was reaching for an example. "Well, it's like when I see a horse pulling a plow. It makes me feel tired."

In that moment, I thought, If he never advances beyond this, he will have attained something so few on this earth ever do. I felt the breath taken from me.

Then the six-year-old noticed I was in fact there. He returned the wind to my lungs. "Melissa, when you get old and die I'll be sad." Well, that'll make me feel better. He helpfully added, "I always feel that way when someone who has given me something gets sick." For an elaboration of empathy--not to mention a forceful reminder that yet another birthday is about to beat the door down, and it's not my usual 39th again, either--you don't get truer than that.

Why does the individual evolutionary tree have two branches, one leading to an ability to feel others' pain as one's own; the other to a blithe ignorance that, say, permits someone to leave their dog untended, or to look at plastic-wrapped trays of red matter in the grocery case and see only plastic-wrapped trays of red matter? What made my son feel the weariness of the workhorse in his own muscles?

Psychology has complete explanations, of course. But I am looking at this from the point of view of the only religion that matters, the only one that makes any sense: the church of compassion. I am looking at it from the point of view of Nelly, who after a day running around in the woods, and some yogurt and eggs, and some tossed sticks, and some unspoken conversation with a pinup of an Aussie, and some trips outside to empty her bladder, has made a perfect oval of herself on a chair in front of the woodstove. I can feel it when I look at her. And this happiness, hers, is mine.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Gratitudes: Part II

I'm deeply into the idea of "reframing" these days. It's one of the processes of denial, which is something I hate being in--it makes me feel as though I'm in a dinghy in a storm-lashed sea, and the rescue ship's rope is just that much too short; I can't get back to myself and the truth. It's even worse to be on the receiving end of another's denial: the world dizzies you, because suddenly it's upside down, and what was said or done was apparently not. But it's also healthy (denial is, after all, the psyche's version of mosquito repellent). It's how I can allow myself to sit at the Thanksgiving table, heart heavy with loss, and then suddenly feel it bursting with happiness, full of hope, a queen surveying her coffers. So, in the spirit of reframing, I offer my second list of things I am grateful for. And there will be more, oh boy there will be more, I hope to be given up till the moment I draw that last rattling breath.

* the night sky outside my door, which contains the Milky Way (still), and a memory of the childhood awe I felt as I stood, blissfully small, underneath the universe that pleasantly hurt my head to contemplate, and which I was absolutely sure I would grow up to visit in a rocketship

* Darwin, who explains everything

* panettone, which stays fresh for practically forever, and therefore ranks as one of those happy mysteries of the cosmos

* the fact that no turkey died for my sins [though here Nelly adds her nongratitude for this nonevent]

* my son saying, "Oh, I don't ever want to stop hugging you!" because it is what I, too, feel, and to have a mirror as beautiful as this is beyond my wildest hopes

* my delicious woodstove on a wintry night

* the New York Times, less to read (it primarily being an annoying, upper-middle-class advertising circular for upwardly mobile dreams of Midas-like food, furs, and obscenely huge real estate) than to help ignite the former item in the list

* my dreams, for their ability to permit me to re-visit a happy past, especially in the form of a white motorcycle by the name of Lario, which for these nights is back in my possession (actually running!) and under me and sounding as beautiful as she ever did

* Tony, already Mayor of Prospect Park, now having official capacity as president of FIDO: long may he reign

* The privilege of having seen, not once, but twice, the incomparable dream city of New Orleans. Every minute, every sight, every bite I ever took in this place is a memory like a perfectly cut gem in its own setting

* The chance to do the work I love; putting me in the smallest minority in the world, and intensely grateful for the luck

You (or at Least Three of You) Asked for It

Stopping the Dog's Heart

The time chosen, it happened, was sunset.
Gathered around, we, your human cadre.
Pistachios, cake, mountain over there.
The doctor arrived late--harried, contrite, polite--
on a motorbike.
You had started to stand. Tufts of your hair,
loosed by pairs of moving hands,
blew over the lawn like summer snow.
It was time. How long had you known what
that hole was there for, divested of its rocky contents
and waiting; when once more filled up and quiet,
a place with a royal view for one whose eyes
no longer could see.
You accepted everything that was given to you: pat, salt
tears on your head, bits of bread. Tourniquet.
Held in a lap, legs stiff, you watched. The vista never changed.
The breeze blew, and of course a hawk was spied. Up, go up,
he said--You're free.
The agent was pink liquid. The angel that bore you away had
arrived on wings of science, the long great study of anatomy and
It will burn a bit, he'd said.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sweet Nothings

Let us speak for a moment about that which should not be spoken of: dogs' nicknames. We are obsessed with what people do in private--peeping-tommery is its own industry, with subsets and special interests I don't even want to know about--but most of it probably boils down to just one item: ick. And you should admit it right now: the pet names you call your pet when no one else can hear are the ickiest things of all. I'm not going to mention the considerable competition, okay? You know the types of unmentionable private behavior to which I refer, and that's embarrassing enough.

But the private is just that. If it is not known by anyone else, it can't embarrass. Instead, it can be one of the sweetest pleasures in life.

Nothing comes out of nowhere. And with us, the genesis of the words we use is always found in the buried vault of childhood. (Ick enough for ya?) I always felt, when I saw someone acting sadistic or whimsically strict with his dog, that I was watching a home movie of the actor's childhood. "I told you to come here now! You're in trouble [smack]." I'll guarantee you that every gratuitous jerk on a leash had its mate a quarter of a century before, in a parent's mean withholding or nasty blow.

And every drop of treacle we dispense to the four-legged dependents who call forth a biological urge to parent from us comes from the same font.

But I am not going to point fingers. I am going to fess up. And allow embarrassment its rightful lodging in my life.

My father called me "pookadookaly." I started calling Nelly "punkie," because she is one, but sometimes I slip (hello, childhood) and she becomes "pookie." She's also--get out the Pepto Bismol, if you're prone--Nelly Jelly Belly. And La Lulu. Where did that come from? Not my youth, certainly!

But it was Mercy who conjured the most voluminous flow of ever-evolving nomenclature. En-dear-dear-dearments. I have been careful not to reuse them on Nelly, no matter that any beast I love will try to elicit these, because I've got a strange superstition about reusing "her" stuff. And I wish I could reel it all back when I hear myself say about someone I love, "Oh, he'll just die when he sees that!" The power of words; the power of fear.

"Mercy" became "Mousse." For some damn reason, sometimes it was "Soup-mousse." And if divulging this isn't the epitome of humiliating oneself in public, I haven't been watching enough reality TV.

Mercy had many other names. She was that dear to me. That love remains private. All the terms could no doubt be traced back through my own past; for that matter, I had a boyfriend whose highest praise, and mine for him, became to call each other "Dog," because we knew them to be the most excellent creatures on earth. Then we began to call each other "Dog-o-let." It actually wasn't icky at all, when I heard that. It was private.

If the origin of these names ("And he named all the animals . . .") can indeed be located in my long-gone history, then they were a way for me to bind my essence, child of humans, to hers. We united. In our private place, within the vessel of names.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Starting to write something is like trying to live: sometimes I wake up unsure of how I ought to feel about it. Oh, I know how I do feel--it's a welter, a morass, a quicksand of shuffling emotions, often beginning with a compression in the chest and a tingle in the nose. But just as I knew in high school, most of these feelings are not "right." How do I know? Because people have hastened to tell me so, of course! You need to let go of that. That isn't funny. Someday, hopefully, you will be able to . . . and other instructive advice. Meanwhile, what do I do with whatever feeling actually is burning a hole through my shirt?

Likewise, sitting down to a blank piece of paper (yes, future biographers: I often use pen on paper, though sometimes I use the computer, and sometimes I go back and forth between the two, so that when I hit a wall using one, I switch to the other with my fingers crossed that it will dislodge some bricks), I never know if I've got the tone right, or the form, though they might well be the same thing. One wants to write a brilliant book, no? So the first sentence must be brilliant. And when I sit down to write a brilliant sentence, well, the jig is up. I can go fold the laundry all I want--when I come back and try again, the brilliant sentence craftily eludes me some more.

So I seek to set a trap for it: I pour a finger of bourbon, not to drown the sentence, but my anxiety over not getting one. Then I put on the headphones. Sometimes I choose music that's fast and insistent, with a compelling rhythm. (No mystery why martial music is big on percussion, and in a further aside, I was thinking last weekend as my son and I were listening to my precious old double album set of Civil War music--my son helpless to do anything but get up and march about the living room, not so different from the slightly older boys whose ears, filled with this prompting, marched onto fields of blood--it is unlikely that anyone will be issuing a collection of Iraqi war music.) I hope that the energy of, say, the Gypsy Kings will cause the words to flow quickly, so they can slip past the internal schoolmarm who wants to halt them so she can see that they've washed the back of their necks.

This last would be analogous to what dog trainer Kim said to me the other night after I had just put Nelly through a short course of agility equipment: "You're overthinking it." When you're doing something physical, it's amazing how quickly--unnoticeably quickly--a little input from the conscious mind can cause a collapse. Nelly, of course, picks it up before I realize what I've done: all of a sudden, she flies past, not over; she comes back out the same end of the tunnel she went in; she does the bedeviling weave poles perfectly the first two times, then the third she pops out at the fourth pole, looks at me as if to say, "Mom, what the heck do you want me to do??" and we try it again and again, until the expression on Nelly's face and indeed whole body is one of pure frustration. Of course, she is eager to voice it (did I mention that Nelly is a screamer?).

That's when I know my mind must have switched on, very much like the electric sensor for our furnace, which I can hear underneath the kitchen floor suddenly clicking, running, then clicking off (though this might actually serve better as an illustration of how poorly insulated our floors are). A moment's hesitation on my part--oh, damn, where is number 6 again, the walk or the chute?--causes everything to fall apart in an instant. Dogs are so attentive to our bodies that the slightest inclination of the shoulders can send them in a different direction. You're not aware that your foot was pointing half an inch off from where you wanted your dog to go; or that your eyes had flicked for a second over there and not here, but your dog saw it. You weren't aware that your dog did, but then your dog speaks body language, and you're just a beginner in it, struggling along with your tapes and remedial classes and your execrable pronunciation. Your dog is fluent, writing poetry with full mastery of tense, nuance, tone.

Sometimes I listen to Bach concertos, Glenn Gould at the piano, cranked to the top. This is the recording that keeps the plane up when I fly; I think it must be the sound of Gould's breath and hum under the music. These compositions are so head-exploding, so humanly impossible, that half the time I am able to write, and half the time I burst into tears. Anyway, crying seems the only proper response to this music's hugeness: it is an aural cathedral, so full of awesomeness the whole sweep of human existence is there before you, and you are at once aware of its puny futility and i
ts unspeakable wonder.

If this doesn't get the words out onto the screen, I might resort to another finger of bourbon, for exactly the same reason that I do so when at a party: intense social anxiety. I have to fake myself out, chemically if necessary, so I don't think about what I'm doing wrong, which will cause me to fall to the floor in a paroxysm of self-consciousness, and then I'm rather unlikely to attract a date, aren't I? Not to mention a brilliant sentence.

Can you tell that I am trying to start some new writing?

I am overthinking everything these days. I just heard the furnace click on.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Dog Star

Horoscopes mean nothing. They are utterly implausible; what the heck could some ancient system of attempting to explain the inexplicable, having to do with where the stars were at the moment you were born, predict what might happen on any given day to millions of people, all going different directions? Crimey. We should visit Stonehenge and ask it to vet our grocery list. None of this stops me from being riveted by my horoscope, naturally.

As one does, however, when one does not like the diagnosis given by one doctor, just keep shopping until a more likable one is offered. That's the doctor to choose.

My astrological doctor of choice is in the pages of a local free (read: heavy on ads) progressive magazine. Its readership is determined to be hippie consumers--and if you think that's an oxymoron, you haven't been to Woodstock, New York, recently. Home of the artfully insouciant tie-dyed silk scarf, the million-dollar yurt in the woods. I like the astrology column--nay, I am addicted to it--because he offers the kind of information your beloved shrink does (but for free!): Look deep inside; engage in honesty and consciousness; let things flow; and that "transformation" you've been painfully undergoing for the past three years is about to pay off big. Certainly, I have been expecting my big payoff any minute now, and I like to think it is going to happen this month! Every Sagittarian knows exactly what this refers to--either you are about to meet the person you're going to marry, or else you're going to finally sell your screenplay, or maybe your father is going to come back and apologize for what he did to you. The best horoscopes sound specific but are vague, and the best astrologers combine the qualities of a psychologist with those of the focus group.

Against all sense--for what does sense have to do with anything we do?--I can barely live without reading whatever horoscope falls to hand. So in our local paper I track my rising and falling fortunes and those of my near and sometimes not-so-dear. The fact that it has never yet been correct makes no difference to me (no difference, do you hear!). Tomorrow. Don't worry. Tomorrow's prediction will come true.

Such hopefulness was on my mind when I went walking the other day with two friends and assorted dogs--between us, there were two labs, two pugs, one labradoodle, one terrier mix, and the uncategorizable Nelly--through a ravishing 75-acre slice of Woodstock. It turned out all three of us were Sagittarians, but that's not what I refer to. I'm talking about the faith I have, must have, that Nelly is going to come back. I have walked this particular piece of property now probably a hundred times with Nelly, and she has always obliged in the end. Eventually. (One time she did so only because I pulled her out by the tail from the two-foot hole she had dug under the board walk to a town building there.)

We three wended our way through the woods, six dogs dutifully acting man's-best-friend-like, no farther than twenty feet away at all times. The seventh? Gone with the wind, like some people I know. But no matter. I was in a state of grace: I had faith.

Nothing makes me madder than the absurd, and nothing is more absurd than the Christian claim that you need faith in order to believe. The snake swallows his tail. No, you need proof in order to believe.

But here I was, embraced by the soft, warm, marshmallow of a feeling called faith. It is a feeling devoid of knowledge. But it often came through, providing Nelly's sudden reappearance, tongue lolling out, perhaps her nose and body covered with dirt, or her neck black with something more fragrant. Sometimes I got the feeling that she strayed so far simply because she loved the flat-out race to come all the way back so much (eventually)--here she comes, flying low, white smudge across the land, her lips drawn all the way back to her ears in the biggest dog smile ever.

Faith is what humans concoct when the alternatives are too awful to be borne.

Still, still, I persist in allowing the warm bath of faith to flow over me. (Sometimes I add epsom salts if I am especially achy.) Not just "things will be better," but "I feel something wonderful stirring," perhaps if only, "Sagittarius, the goal you've been striving for all this time is close at hand."

And then, oh my gosh, it occurs to me that maybe the goal I'm about to reach is simply the faith itself. God save me from becoming a Christian. But sometimes you just want to believe. Sometimes you just want to smile.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Anecdote, Antidote

Nelly as weathervane, prognosticator, barometer. Nelly as source of the amazing realization (if I but realize). Nelly knows, because of her nose. But how is it that I know?

On Tuesday we returned home from the dump, a wondrous place I can rarely get enough of--look what has been thrown away, and in what quantity!; my inner Pollyanna looks for the prize I know must lurk in all that crackerjack (yes, inside the melancholic me resides an ever-shining naive optimist--and she won't go home, no matter what I say). After the dump we went on a walk near the dump, during which Nelly went off to search for her own prize, and kept me waiting in the car an extra ten minutes. After that we went back to the house.

The minute I opened the door, I could feel it. With what sense? Perhaps I was mistaken; it was only a feeling, and oh my god how wrong those little buggers can often be. But then I saw Nelly. She had walked in a couple of feet, then stopped. Her body seemed to coil in on itself, and she instantly became a quarter inch smaller all around. Now, suddenly: Propeller Tail! Next, screams (did I mention Nelly is a screamer?). Those are the two sure signs that someone desired is near.

Or he was. Nelly ran up the stairs to take a look. Where was he?

Because I know that, in this world, humans are rarely far from their cars, the absence of his car in the driveway meant the absence of him in the house. Nelly did not know this as I did. So she continued to search the rooms, since fresh molecules of the dearly departed had just been injected to the air. He had just made a visit back, to continue picking up his things piecemeal. (Small bits of my heart still lay shattered all about, but these would remain for the final sweep-up.) This is not, by the way, how he destroyed me: over time. Rather, I was crushed all at once under a beam that fell suddenly from above.

These fresh molecules left behind by an individual who had visited for a few minutes Nelly could distinguish from the old ones that still hung about from that same individual's domicile in this house for seven years. Of course, she was disappointed to not find their source. I hated to see it in her; she came back down the stairs and stood looking at me: Is this a trick? Where did you put him? And I hated that she had been made to feel it. Just as I hated, in far greater measure, holding for ten long minutes my son's disappointment in my arms--which is to say, his whole sobbing body--last Friday, when he got off the bus and declared, "But I want to see my daddy every day!"

But how did I know, too, that he had been here?

Before Nelly even reacted, I could feel something. It was something . . . cold. Something filled with hate. Or maybe it was untruth. Perhaps the two are related. The air inside the door felt different. It was my intuition speaking to me, and I think maybe intuition is the ghost vestige of some great animal power we've lost, some magnificent sense of intellectual smell, with which we could experience something hidden from sight.

My intuition had visited my dreams for as long as I was married. I pushed it away. Year after year, I pushed it away. Because I did not want to smell it, even though it did everything to alert me except put my head in the toilet and flush. It woke me gasping and in tears. It was always the same vision. Time after time. And I said, or my friends said, or he said, No, that could never be true. He loves you! Never, until one sudden day it was. One day in late July, he did exactly what those many nightmares had foretold. The same words, the look, the action. And the beam fell.

I marvel that for sixteen years I knew what was going to happen. I didn't want to know the truth, so I discounted the notion of intuition. Oh, but never again. I want to be like Nelly: take a deep breath. Smell what is there. Smell what is not.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Opportunity Knocks

By now you know that Nelly is not real. Of course, she is real--just ask the aforementioned dead creatures. Oh, yeah. You can't ask them anything anymore. Sorry. For there's nothing realer than being able to make something else cease to be real.

Nelly is quite real in that physical, warm, furry sense; the one that increasingly requires such nearness to the provider of her all-natural Biologically Appropriate Raw Food diet (that's BARF to you) that she frequently issues no warning that she's about to spring into your lap, even as you stupidly hold a cup of hot coffee perilously near the keyboard and not uncoincidentally over said lap. She is very real in a whole host of ways. But she is also, here and elsewhere in my life, an excuse.

In this conceptual guise, Nelly exists as a changing series of notes on which to riff. She exists as the fulcrum against which one thought hoists another. She is a blank whiteboard awaiting the squeak and scrawl of colored pens. She allows me to think of myself. Because what is thinking of others, but thinking of oneself? Everything's relative, after all: relative to ME. People love to ponder the universe. But they seem to have perfected a way of pondering without actually thinking very much. I can't come up with any purpose to existence other than the purpose of thinking about the purpose. That's a very great privilege. It must needs include everything that's here, every single being.

I once had a friend who spoke so contemptuously of the "stupid, suicidal" deer who didn't know any better than to wait until the last minute to launch themselves on top of her car or motorcycle. So they were cunning enough to plot this malfeasance; but too stupid to care about not getting themselves killed.

Apart from the logical fallacy of her thinking--and here let me cram in another grand claim about myself, which is the one about logic being my uberdeity, above even biological determinism and operant conditioning!--there is a gaping absence here of soul, too. She could not reach beyond the gravitational pull of self to think for a second about deer themselves, animals evolved to flee from predators who chase, not from ones who move sideways to them in unwavering lines. Deer can't possibly want to die under the wheels of a car any more than they do in the teeth of mountain lions, but they cannot comprehend the action of this more formidable killer made of metal. My friend did not think anyone but her had a claim on a full life. And because she did not, I think she actually might have less.

It's easy to have sympathy for those who are just like us. To the point that maybe it's not really sympathy, even, but self-regard in another costume. But to feel it for the truly alien--that is the beginning of morality.

The reason the squirrels suddenly change direction, too, is their normal path of flight from those who wish a furry gray meal. Give them a brake, as they say.

So Nelly gives me an excuse to think about me, and nature; and me, and behavior; and me, and the meaning of the universe; and, well, me once again. She also gives me the excuse, which I might otherwise not take advantage of, to go out into the clear black night and thus the opportunity to look at the last vestige of the Milky Way still left after the efforts of us really smart humans to obliterate it. Of course, I'm not always so happy to escort her outdoors when it's 15 degrees and I'd rather be falling asleep on the warm wood floor in front of the woodstove. But in the aggregate, I'm happy indeed.

I was even pleased just now to be reminded that I am a real primate, on the occasion of realizing that I derive a deep and secret pleasure from picking ticks off her. I like being a part of a nature photograph in which one baboon is blissfully lost in an ancient ritual of chemistry and society, fingering through the hair of another. It brings us closer. And right into the center of the meaning of it all. Then I go crush the suckers with a rock.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Two-Part Invention: 1. What She Has Killed

(Each and every one, deeply mourned)

1. ring-necked pheasant
2. rabbit
3. two squirrels
4. innumerable shrews
5. young woodchuck
6. three chipmunks

What She Has Not Killed, Only Confronted

red fox

Nelly: lap dog, momma's girl, and murderer

[thanks to Andrew Garn for inspiration]

2. The Close Calls She's Had

This will be a chaotic composition, because I find my mind has blocked recall of most of these; perhaps they have all gone to reside in a locked box that is stored somewhere deep in the gray matter. So many of them have merged into a single image of Nelly racing down the side of our blind-cornered road between my house and my neighbor's, called there by the dual siren songs of the chickens in the side yard and their late dog Misty, who was Nelly's first Grandma . And the second that she turns in to their driveway, in my memory, a car races by. "If it had been just one minute later . . . " my catatastrophizing mind repeats in a horrified whisper.

I do not always take the good advice I am given, just as I do not always eat the food I am offered (if it is chicken, for instance). But I did follow the instruction to early and often pair Nelly's name, spoken in a particular singsong, with a luscious treat. Every time. Many, many repetitions. And this small investment has paid off big. I spent a lot of money fencing our property from the road, and putting a big gate across the drive. Do you think, then, that I close it every time? Am I consistent, or thoughtful? I leave you to ponder this in your own time; meanwhile, I submit the possibility that denial and justification are thick veils we throw over the truth when it doesn't suit us to look at it. "Oh, she won't go out the gate this time; she'll get in the car when I do"; "It'll only be for a minute." Then, in a panic, I've had to call her name as I see her about to trot out into the road. And she's turned on a dime and raced back to me. That's when I think: "Praise the lord, and B. F. Skinner. He just saved my dog's life."

I. At the rail trail, where the trail head is just off a rural highway with heavy traffic, all going 60 mph, Nelly headed off into the few backyards a half mile in to look for what rabbits or cats might be sunning themselves on a deck, as usual. But Melissa did not use her head this particular time, and instead of continuing farther on the trail, where she knew Nelly would soon return, she went off into the woods with the friend she was walking with in order to chase the two children she was also with (rule number one: do not dog walk with non-dog friends; and especially do not watch children at the same time). Oh, woe is the idiotic me. Nelly couldn't find us. So she went back to the parking lot. And when she couldn't find me there, she did the next logical thing: go out into the middle of Route 209. I only know this courtesy of a note someone placed on my windshield. (I guess they knew it had to be the right car because of the "If you love animals called pets, why do you eat animals called dinner?" bumper sticker.) It said, "Your dog was in the middle of the road, and stopped five cars." My heart stopped too. I do not know why it should have ended like this, Nelly in the parking lot, safe, waiting once more for me.

II. Winter. Snow on the ground. A good idea to go walking in an exquisite park on the edge of the Hudson. Bridge over waterfall. Trail up and down through woods; trail skirting a field. Three in the afternoon. By four, Nelly is gone. I am used to this; she wears craft-store bells on her collar when we go out. I can hear the bells at least, if I can't see her. The sound moves, but nothing appears. Periodically a flash of white may be seen. Eventually she returns. Not this time.

All the way to the end of the trail. Then back to the car. Back once again, even farther: now I hear the bells. She has taken it upon herself to go another mile up the trail than we had gone, and is now in the center of a veritable Grand Central of a briar patch. I see her footprints crisscrossing in the snow, a thousand paths cut by swift feet. She has gone completely mad. Completely hind-brain, as the neurologists would say. She is on the scent of bunnies. And she's not going to give up, even if it kills her. So I sit there. I try to dive on top of her when she emerges, but she's a Lamborghini. Then she dives back in where no human can follow.

Night is falling. Janet, who has stayed with me two hours into this adventure, finally leaves, reluctantly. I walk back two miles to get the car, so I can park up on the road just within sight of the briars. Then I get out and cross the field. Then I go back. Now, in full dark, I walk down the road to the nearest house. I use their phone to call home, as if that's going to help. My (former) husband will come, with our child. The people at the house tell me that when a hunting dog's lost, they leave a cardboard box containing some used clothing so the dog will eventually find it and sleep there. They give me a box. I take off my scarf. I am prepared to leave Nelly for the night, because it seems that is what it's going to take. The night. Home is twenty miles away.

I sit in the car. I can't see anything. Suddenly, as if in a dream, she is there, by my door. I open it, but before I can exhale, she is gone, streaking across the field to the briars again. I start the car, to try driving slowly down the road a piece, hoping she'll follow. She doesn't. My family should be arriving in a half hour. Then we will leave, and I will spend the night lying awake in bed, wondering if I'll ever see Nelly again.

Then, just as suddenly, she is there again. I see her white form by the bumper. This time, I open the door, and she hops in. Her tongue drags the seat. She is stuck with thorns like a pincushion. And she is so exhausted I wonder if she will collapse.

I see the lights of our other car. We all leave together. It doesn't seem possible. Four hours have elapsed.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Good Medicine

One day, there were two people who didn't know what they had gotten themselves into. (Actually, every day of recorded history there are two people who don't know what they're getting into, but that belongs in another story.) They had brought home a little puppy, and it might as well have been that they brought home a small ocelot.
They neither understood her, nor she them. They certainly didn't know what they could do about the fact that she stayed up most of the night chewing on electrical cords and the legs of the furniture and sometimes the legs of the people themselves.

Finally, it was time to call in the authorities. The one who showed up at their house took five minutes to assess the situation. She clearly understood ocelots.
She pronounced the remedy: "What you need is the Park Cure."

The next day she showed up in her car at 7:30 in the morning and drove the woman and her wild animal a few blocks away, into a world of green. This was another place entirely, one the people had vaguely known existed--they had probably walked by it, and maybe even through it, once or twice--but they had by no means known what it really was. It was a new universe separate from the one in which they had previously lived. It was to become home for the woman and her dog. For one thing, it would be a living National Geographic special on domesticated animal behavior into which she'd step every morning. She learned many, many things. And it would also be an education in human behavior, too, which was far more convoluted and strange than anything the dogs could concoct, even with their sudden alliances and just as sudden antipathies. At least they would handle these directly, quickly, and decisively. The same could not be said of the way the humans did things.

The place where the Park Cure was effected was Brooklyn's Prospect Park, an Olmsted-Vaux park every bit as beautifully drawn as Manhattan's version. In those days, though, it was not as renovated as it is now, because the Big Money had yet to migrate over the East River as it has recently done, with its imperative for the fixed-up and polished. In those days, it belonged solely to the dogs and their people, who wandered every morning its derelict fittings and rotted bridges, its overgrown plantings and scary corners. Oh, forgive me. Those were inhabited by others: the homeless and the shady, so it was not only the dogs and their people. The dogs would find the only things the homeless had to give to the world, underneath the bushes, and so the people would have to take their dogs home right away and bathe them several times. As for the shady, every once in a while a dog would find one of their leavings, with the coroner coming after.

The people would walk slowly, talking, and the dogs would race and play. And that was all there was to the Park Cure. The puppy would go home exhausted, and sleep instead of chewing everything in the people's apartment. The people were happy.

Among the woman's allies in her new pack was a nurse, who had a beautiful ringing laugh, and who brought needles so she could give the dogs their inoculations in the park, which made them much happier than being dragged to the vet's office and pricked there, without the solace of their friends and the beautiful green world around them. It made the people happier too, to not have to pay the vet for the disadvantage. Another was a man whom, the woman realized, she could only have encountered in this place, and so she was to remain grateful to the park forever for making this impossible meeting possible. The park was the small pointed oval where the circle of the man's life coincided with the circle of the woman's. This former boy of the streets of the Bronx was known informally as the Mayor of Prospect Park, and he was there every day, rain or sun, ice or heat, with his gold dog Daisy, whose name would soon be black under the skin of his arm, when she too went the way of all of us. Daisy was what we came to refer to as a Brooklyn Shepherd, a very particular and prized breed.

The packs, human and canine both, sometimes changed their shape and size, expanding or diminishing as people came and went, as people do. The core remained hard and true, though, and they soon could no longer tell whether they needed to go to the park every day for their own sake, or for their dogs'. They couldn't tell the difference, because there was no difference.

The woman would carry the friendships, and the memory of those mornings that felt very much like freedom in a physical form, wherever she would later go.

The varied terrain, the winding paths and open vistas, the copses and reflecting pools, the swans in the water (and occasionally moving to attack the dogs), gave definition to the morning walks, as the parts of the day do to a life. There was real and wild beauty here, even if it was devised by the hand of man. The same could be said for the dogs themselves, made from the clay of nature but shaped by us. And then returned to nature again in a park.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


I am, unfortunately, allergic to anything called "a practice." Perhaps this dates back to the days of piano (a word in which "pain" is plainly hidden), when in exchange for thirty minutes a day of etudes and scales, I got horseback riding lessons. It is a testimony to just how magnetic I found the touch of horseflesh that I endured the hated Mrs. Brown, literally a hunchbacked gnome of a woman, who rapped my knuckles if they took the wrong form over the keyboard.

I know I ought to engage in many beneficial practices, such as the daily practice of yoga, or that of meditation, but I just can't make myself practice anything. It is probably a back-dated justification to believe I am too much of a free spirit to be packaged into a practitioner. Yes, I like that. But I must also consider that now that I am free to pursue my own practices, the memory of having once been forced to gives it that troubling flashback flavor. (Notwithstanding the fact that I am really happy now to know, sort of, how to read music.)

So, no practices for me, except this one: the practice of assembling gratitudes, those gifts that drop like fall leaves into a life. Just like that. Unasked for, unearned. But variegated and astonishingly colored, and worth a moment of scrutiny. And, um, gratitude. They will blow away eventually, to be replaced at every new breeze. Or maybe we'll put them on the burn pile and watch their transformation into smoke.

Herewith, a few of the things I am grateful for.

~ That Nelly chooses to sleep on the unkempt pile of clothes I am too lazy to hang up from the footstool on the end of my bed. No, I am not grateful to have a chenille sweater stuck through with white dog hair. But I am filled with happiness to see her on her throne of clothes, and I am touched by her apparent desire to be close to me, or at least close to what I have excreted from my scent glands.

~ Pumpkin ice cream, now making its seasonal appearance

~ My child telling me, when I tell him I love him more than anything, "But I love you more than you love me!" even though this is an impossibility

~ I am grateful unto astonishment for my friends and family and the outpouring of generosity and concern they have showed in the past two months. They have:
* Given me shelter (and clean sheets and breakfast) on a moment's notice
* Taken my child and done fun things with him while I either fell apart or did one of the twenty thousand things I suddenly had to do
* Held me in their arms while I sobbed
* Spent hour after hour on the phone with me, listening and advising, with never a word about themselves
* Brought me produce from their gardens, and bags of groceries, and presents to make me smile
* Provided dinners, with a dessert of shoulder to lean on
* Offered to help with chores
* Given me the first experience ever of having someone clean my house, because I could not keep up with it
* Called me, day after day, to check in and make sure I was okay
* Given advice on jobs, and sometimes jobs themselves
* Taken Nelly on many walks when I did not have the time, and cared for Nelly for eleven days so I could take my son on the vacation that had been promised B.C. [Before Cataclysm]
* Bought clothing for my child, to take some of the financial heat off
* Given me classes of yoga they had paid for, ditto
* Invited me places so I wouldn't feel lonely
* Sent me e-mails, of a cumulative tens of thousands of words, containing good counsel and huge comfort
* Listened, yet again, to more hours of the deepest expression of grief
* Embraced me with love
There can be no greater gratitude than I feel for this.

~ A college radio station nearby that plays old country & western heartbreak hits when I need them, and techno when I need that (admittedly less frequently than the former)

~ Short-grain brown rice

~ To be here, now

[with thanks to Kris for the inspiration]

Friday, September 28, 2007

Reader Poll

Yes, folks. First-ever reader poll. Actually, this is sort of a joke. But anyone who makes his or her opinion known will influence the future! Haven't you always wanted to do that?
It has been suggested to me by several people that my new circumstances in life will ultimately yield a surprising benefit: a certain lightening, shall we say, of the tenor of my writing. In other words, the absence of a party whose dominant mode was depression and anger is going to have a salutary effect not only in my life, but in the way I write as well.
Hope they're right.
But I was thinking about posting a poem (the last one I was moved to write, which doesn't happen all that frequently these days, now that I seem to have lost the hormonal rush or whatever it was that once upon a time caused me to spill out poems at a frightening rate). This poem was created in the olden days, two years ago. It's dark and sad. Or at least I think it is: I will admit that it makes its own author cry every time she reads it. That may be a result of the writing, or it may be the subject, which is dogs, and . . . death.
What say you? Should I put it up here?

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Sometimes, when you see the end coming, you want to look away. Other times, you hasten it yourself. Both are subconscious actions--like about 90 percent of the stuff we do in life. (Interesting; I just picked that number out of a hat, because it sounded about right: now I remember that someone said yesterday that 90 percent is the amount of brain we supposedly don't use. And I thought then, "Yeah, well, it's the part we don't use consciously." See what I mean about the subconscious?)

When you hasten the end, it could be said, like most children under ten you're not good with transitions. I am apparently under ten, and always have been.

After four years of boarding school, which I largely loved--evening smokes en masse by the hockey pond! a boy-to-girl ratio of six to one!--by the middle of senior year I was like a junkyard dog pulling so hard at his chain his neck is purple. I had preceded my approach to this sensation, in junior year, by running away from school one day. I'm sure it was just a minor coincidence that I had math first thing that morning, as well as that the day was one of those days of deeply saturated color, the popsicle blue of the sky vibrating against green and orange, a synaesthesia you can feel on your tongue. It inserted me into the kind of postcard I lived to buy when on vacation with my family in the sixties: scenic.

That day I got on my bicycle and rode the fifteen miles to my parents' house. They looked at me funny, then let me hang around, fed me dinner, and calmly loaded me and the Raleigh into the car and drove me back.

Senior year, we were given the option to fashion a project for the last month of school. What project, though? "How to Spend Days at the Beach without Really Accomplishing Anything"? "Richard Brautigan: How Much Can You Take"?

I love dogs; I want to leave boarding school. Hmmm. Maybe I should have gone to that math class after all.

My senior project ended up with me back home, working for the humane society of Akron, Ohio. Such as it was. My mornings would be spent in a Bartleby the Scrivener - esque endeavor, that of clipping the previous day's lost-and-found-animal notices from the small type of the classifieds at the back of the esteemed Akron Beacon Journal. Using aromatic school paste, I would afix these to the manilla paper of a large scrapbook whose supply of pages seemed endless. Then it was shut, never to be opened again, until I climbed the stairs once again to their dusty office, which seems forever captured in my mind in a grainy black-and-white shot from the buttonhole of a detective's Burberry.

But in the afternoon, I would head to the raucous precincts of life. Well, actually, death and life. Because in order to reach the humane society's few cages, I would first pass down the death row of the city pound. The dogs would leap against their bars, some to yell: Get me out of here!, others in their wish to pay me back for the deeds of the other miserable humans who had gotten them there in the first place. I could not bring myself to look at any of them.

I was wearing a pair of overalls I reserved solely for this part of my duty. Because the dogs in the humane society's cages lived there until someone got them out, and their beds were their bathrooms. They jumped all over me, tongues and paws and body slams. They smelled horrific.

It was my job to "walk" these beasts. The small yard of the pound, hidden under the great rusting iron of some bridge over one of Akron's steep valleys, was in a likewise hidden part of town. They twirled at the end of the leash as I walked them around and around. They sniffed eagerly, pulling me along as if to some dreamed-of freedom. They were happy in these moments. As my friend Jolanta says, it is heartbreaking how little it takes to make a dog happy. And, I add, how so many dogs do not get even that.

So, for a month, I doled out small happinesses to dogs, all of whom are now combined into one Unknown Dog in my memory. Then I graduated. I did not return to the city pound until one Christmas Eve twenty years later, when I ill conceived the idea to get a dog for my mother, who could have used one. But we did not see one there who was remotely suitable. As my little sister and I stood frozen in the corridor, a worker came up behind us. "See the ones with the green tags? They've got one more day." We collapsed into each other's arms, sobbing. My brother-in-law gently pushed us toward the door, because we might have stayed there until after Santa arrived. At our house. Not here.

Happiness in life only comes in small moments, no matter that we expect it in permanent amount. This is not merely the outlook of a person naturally given to dark thoughts. It is the knowledge of the Buddhists: all is flux. I am happy I was there for some creatures' small moments of joy; I had some part in theirs, and they therefore had a part in mine. Transitions are just difficult for me, that's all. They happen to be getting easier all the time, now that I am nearing eleven.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Beauty/Beholder's Eye

Once upon a time there was a young woman who was searching. Everywhere she went--Fifth Avenue at lunchtime; the grocery; that bar on the corner of B and 7th--she felt that something was about to appear to her. And sometimes, it did: brown eyes visible only for a second under a hat bill pulled low; the revelation of a face as the motorcycle helmet was pulled upward. In that moment, an entire story was written. Always, it contained depths, and the promise of prizes the girl dreamed of most heavily: startling intelligence, striving for the heights of art, gentleness and compassion and the ability to love.

Often, the story turned out considerably shorter than imagined. Barely had the first beer gone down than the hopefully posited qualities evaporated. In their place, the dreaded shallowness of all sorts. Just as quickly as the story had been written, the words fell off the page, tinkling on the ground like ice. But the strangest thing was that as this happened, the men changed shape. No longer handsome, the source of such arching desire it would become invisible in the clouds, they became rather plain. Ugly, even.

This is yet another of these weird human dramas our dogs rescue us from. Because I don't believe this really ever happened: a handsome dog, once taken in under roof, became unappealing because it is discovered that, intellectually, he is no border collie. Instead, it only works this way: that love transforms the homeliest of beasts into the subject of a Stubbs painting, reflecting shards of light off its surface. You may not be able to see the dog's dopey eyes, but to her owner she is beauty in four-legged form. And is gazed at rapturously for hours, during which she becomes even more gorgeous.

I wonder if dogs are susceptible to beauty in other dogs, or if it's all about the scents that emanate from glands placed (for us) altogether too near an uninviting place. Well, guess what, folks: to us, beauty can be far less in the eye of the beholder than in the nostrils of the pheromone-smeller, too. [Have I mentioned that I am a biological determinist?] As well as in the give-and-take of possibility and desire, or what is doomed to remain unfulfilled even as we (think) we want it.

Dogs are creatures of opportunity, and take their beauty where they find it, which is largely in front of them.

I wrote, at the beginning of this series, about how Nelly was not what I intended at all. She was not my ideal of beauty in a dog.

One day, a long time ago in another life, we were walking past the town green in Delhi, New York (an ideally beautiful town, it happens). A couple was walking toward us, engaged in mild but vigorous debate. As we neared, it became apparent that the man was arguing with his girlfriend about the physical attractiveness of her dog, who was absent. The girl protested, naturally: her dog, she said, was indeed quite handsome. No, he countered. And as they drew abreast of us, he suddenly saw Mercy. He took her arm and pointed. "Now that's a beautiful dog."

Indeed she was. And my love for Nelly has made her beautiful too. So it passes into fact. Because I have framed this particular picture. Nothing can change that.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


If dogs didn't have emotions, they wouldn't do what they do when they lose someone. Dare I use the word "mourn"? Oh, I do, I do. Only a fool, or someone with a big agenda and a small mind when it comes to evolution, would say that animals who live in complex social units wouldn't have also developed the complex emotions that support living with others.

Ethologists have reported enough on the subject of animals who mourn; the amount of observational evidence is enough to squash the idiotic notion that loss followed by depressive behavior is just a wild coincidence. One that keeps recurring. Elephants bury their dead. Cows who lose their calfs call out for them (with a sound that's been called "mournful.") The insult of "anthropomorphism" charged to people who witness such behavior and then call it by its true name is actually a projection. It is they who see everything in human terms. Emotion is mammalian. It is living.

I have twice seen animals in mourning. The second is Nelly, this month. For a period of weeks, her mood matched my own: confusion, sadness, loss, at the inexplicable disappearance of the other packmate from her home den--the one who sometimes used to feed her, take her for walks, provide a warm lap every evening on the La-Z-Boy. If you don't think dogs are sensitive to consistency, you've never seen one five minutes before mealtime.

Nelly's eyes looked duller. She slept more. She didn't bounce up and down like a Superball to get me to throw a toy from the basket outside the door so she could show me what a good imitation of a Ferrari at LeMans she could do. But like all sadness, it eventually passed, though it has no doubt left its faint mark somewhere on her soul. Reality for her has come to stand next to desire, and the two may now stay together for some time. I hope.

The first dog I saw sink into depression was Mercy. I alluded a while ago to having had another dog. I couldn't face then saying anything then, because the pain of his loss was mixed with the sticky guilt of having been the cause of that loss: we killed him. Roscoe, the good-hearted. Roscoe, the childlike innocent, the black, shaggy-coated stray from the park who did not know what he wanted, except to be safe. And though his strategy may not have succeeded, or maybe only temporarily, like a cigarette, a nip of cognac, a self-told story that in repeating the past we are really doing something altogether new, he used it again and again. He bit. He bit a friend the first night we had him. He bit someone who tripped over him in the dark. He bit a neighbor, the lawn guy, a girlfriend, a child, a stranger. And then he tried to bite my baby. You are now in possession of the total timeline of our life with Roscoe.

I brought him home as a friend to Mercy. I hated to leave her alone (and only now do I realize how much it was that I did not want to be without her, as much as it was about her going without her). This assuaged my guilt. They became husband and wife. They would roll on the bed together, paws around each other's shoulders, mouths open, teeth clacking. Roscoe never bit Mercy.

Slowly, after weeks of acclimating at our house, Roscoe learned to be happy again. He opened like a flower in the morning sun. I would say, "Better get going, Roscoe!" and he would get what dog people know as the zoomies, hindquarters tucked for propulsion, describing big fast circles and circles, a great smile spread across his face. Yes, dogs smile.

We took him to three different trainers. All they could offer was--well, nothing. "Control," one said, and had us make our own slip collar from nylon with which to startle him. Roscoe came into our house ten years too early: where was there to go? No Patricia McConnell, no Carolyn Wilki, no Pat Miller. Nobody to teach us how to teach him. Nobody to help us save him.

One day before Christmas, with my baby strapped to my chest, we took Roscoe for a walk alone, down the streets of Brooklyn. Mercy did not want to be left alone, without us, without her best friend in the world. But Roscoe was so happy: as long as he was with me, whom he never bit, he smiled. He danced down Seventh Avenue, almost as if he were proud. This is not an emotion, perhaps, that dogs have; but Roscoe was Roscoe, and maybe pride was his alone. We entered the vet's office.

I sobbed then as I sob now, deep, helpless. No one can make me feel better. It is something that has gone down there to live, and I can call it back by imagining his trusting face, his eyes on mine. Mercy was not herself for many months. There was no way to tell her what we'd done. My girl. I mourn them all.

Monday, September 3, 2007


When I reach for the door knob, I see Nelly get up, expectation on her face. She pauses, calculating: Is my person just going out onto the porch for a minute--she makes this inscrutable action an awful lot [undoggy things like taking out the recycling, getting shoes, shaking out the rug]--or is she about to disappear forever? The first one isn't so bad, you know, but the latter one . . . So which is it this time? I mean, do I have to do that quick slip-through-the-legs thing I've lately mastered?

The other day Melissa did something she regrets. Actually, she does things she regrets on a fairly regular basis. But this time it was both shameful and dangerous. I gave in to road rage. Just like an idiot. I was on our neighborhood fancy road, the slow and winding one with the houses that remind me of the Hamptons. I daydream on this road, having at long last selected the gray shingle-style manse as the one I will be redecorating in my next life. The speed limit here is 30 mph, and I was going 40. Suddenly in my rearview mirror I see, rather too largely, three young, male laughing faces. Underneath them is a Porsche convertible.

They are seconds from my bumper. Not much makes me as mad as this. People who own the world, including your right to live. This is the country, for chrissakes. What do they think I'm going to do when a rabbit, fox, deer leaps out in front of me? Blithely run through them? No, that's what they would do, apparently. But then, on a blind corner, these Masters of the Universe pull out to pass. This action causes a beautiful blood red, saturated and blinding, to drop before my eyes. So first came my finger--I think you know which one--out the window. Then the blast on the horn. But wait. That had no effect, and I want an effect, goldarnit. My foot hit the accelerator. Hmmm, for a four-cylinder, this car has a little pickup! Just when I was on their tail, they hit the brakes. My own brakes smoked. Not entirely in time, though, so I had to swing wide. And when I was abreast of them, the driver (hey, cute straw hat, mate!) was out and leaping across the hood of my car. His posse scrambled out, too, all of them surrounding the car and screaming obscenities. Gender slurs, don't you know. I was one hormone away from being dragged out of my car and beaten to a pulp on the bucolic pavement. I still managed to yell, "You're going to kill someone that way!" I might have added a few brief epithets myself. Umm. Yeah. I did.

And while they were spraying their spittle on my windshield, I was aware of a sound that surprised me greatly. Nelly. Nelly was growling. She has never in her life growled at a human being. Other dogs, yes. Yes, oh yes. But never a person. She read their intent. And she responded in kind. My brave, great, twenty-pound protector!

But let me interrupt this beautiful yet self-serving moment. She was protecting herself, not me.

This knowledge does not make me love her any less, mind you. Nor does it break the bond. Only a myth.

They are the quiet watchers. We are such stumblers and narcissists we cannot even see how closely they are watching. But they are. And no one will ever watch you like your dog. When you were a baby, your mother gazed for hours at your fingers, the side of your nose. But your dog knows every subcutaneous muscle in your face better than that. There was a study I would like to cite (were I not so exhausted and lazy now that I can't search for it) that revealed how dogs could detect subtle intentional movement in human faces far more closely than either wild canids or our close ape relatives. It's as if, subconsciously, we needed to create an animal that would pay as much attention to us as our mommies. Being paid attention is the survivalist equivalent of being paid gold. How secure, therefore important, it makes us feel to be watched!

From the dog's point of view, however, the ability to minutely discern our intentions is all about them: What is this human about to do, and how will it affect me? Jean Donaldson's greatest formulation is the notion that dogs do what works for them. Period. No moral striving, no attempt to "please" us (but certainly, an attempt to avoid the manifestations of the more unpleasant side of our nature--oh, lord, de trouble I seen . . . ). The dog trainers who insist that you shouldn't give food rewards, you should ask the dog to do things because a dog should want to please you, should themselves work for no pay. A deal's a deal.

Right now, at this time in my life, going through a great trial and crisis, I think about this intelligence of dogs. They look intently at us, and see what we are really all about. This seems to me a way of living in truthfulness--not a metaphor, but literally a sticking to facts, not wishes, projections, desires, or self-protective embroideries. These now have a way of repulsing me when I see them; perhaps it is the price for having unwittingly embraced them in the past. Now, I get close to someone who is fooling himself, and I feel nauseated. Truthfulness, to self and others, is the only place worth going. Even if it makes you take a steep, hard road to get there.

When, out of necessity these days, I put a smile on my lips when inside I am feeling something quite different, I fancy myself a decent actress. My human audience seems unable to tell. But no dog would be fooled, for even one second