Sunday, August 26, 2007


The South is another place entirely. It only seems to adhere to this continent; actually, it is a hologram, and exists in some other space-time continuum than the rest of the country. It has its own customs, codes, language. It is the place where you see trucks wearing bumper stickers that say Lee Surrendered--I Didn't. And I say this, I want you to know, as someone whose youth was given over to romantic mooning about the Civil War. My allegience then, corrupted by six too many readings of Gone With the Wind, was on the side of the embattled boys in gray. (I never wanted to be awash in crinolines, either; I was always a soldier in my fantasies, which were stoked by monthly infusions of Civil War Times Illustrated.)

The South has another attitude toward animals, too. It is the old, rural, impoverished attitude toward animals: let them fend for themselves, I ain't spending no money I don't have on them. So they go unspayed, and they go roaming. The rest is as you imagine.

I visited Barbour County, West Virginia, last spring to see whence Nelly sprang. I mean that literally, too. She bears the blood of the South in her veins, for she is a little Rebel.

Barbour is the second poorest county in one of our poorest states; maybe this is like saying a restaurant is the second best in the mall's food court. Or do I mean second worst?

An omen appeared as I was driving for the motel where I would spend the night after meeting with Dot Hayhurst, a founder of Animal Friends of Barbour County, the rescue operation that took over the local pound and in whose basement Nelly spent her first days of life. Up in the distance I saw a black spot by the side of the road. As I drew closer--and did so fairly quickly, as I was booking 70 mph on a four-lane highway--the spot turned into a dog. It wore no collar. I knew what was going to happen next. Not having anywhere to go, it went where it was facing. Cars went by before and after, because the angel of dogs had improbably chosen that moment to fly over.

The angel has too much work to do in West Virginia. The dogs who don't make it all the way across, or who break their chains, or who limp away, or who are pushed out of moving cars, sometimes make it to the doors of the too few people who are willing to help them. But sometimes the rescuers, with forty dogs already in their porches, pens in the yard, doghouses that speckle their property, and more dogs coming in every day, start looking like the people from whom other people feel compelled to rescue dogs.

More come all the time because often, people in the South either don't have the money to fix their dogs or think it's a good idea to let dogs have their "fun." The puppies that result can then be shot by the animal control officer, who is misnamed because he is really the animal execution officer, the bulk of his job being to operate the gas chamber or go out on calls with his gun and plenty of bullets.

Nelly's mother was living, if it can be called that, on a property with dozens of other dogs; how many, the "caretaker" surely never knew. The dogs were living in junk cars, under porch stairs, in an abandoned house. Nelly's mother was a sad, frightened border collie mix. Who Nelly's father was, no one was sure until one day, the mystery was revealed to me.

The day after the place was busted, Nelly's mother gave birth inside one of the cages that had to be piled in the yard of the pound, which had only a handful of runs inside, even though the county routinely produced scores of strays every week. That was what the gas chamber just outside was for. But when Animal Friends took it over, they became a no-kill facility, and on this day they suddenly had so many dogs they had nowhere to put them but in the yard. Another bitch gave birth that first night, too, and so Dot was called upon to take two litters into her home. Nelly's mother and her new pups went downstairs, where a plastic kiddie pool would be their den.

Nelly's mother came to a bad end. I don't like to think about it, because then I have to get all angry at ignorant people who don't understand about undersocialized animals, and the bondedness of strays with new people, and how the precariousness of their emotions means that you can't pass them around as if they were a serving platter at dinner. Then they are apt to run away in fear and, yes, heartbreak, and spend their last remaining nights hiding behind headstones in a graveyard before finally meeting their end under the wheels of a car.

Nelly prompts people to remark that while she certainly has border collie blood, she also must have Papillon parentage, an assertion I too quickly reject. Out of pure bias; I am pleased to make the acquaintance of many a Papillon. But they are not what I had in mind for my new dog.

It was well after I returned from West Virginia that Dot sent me an e-mail. She said she suddenly had an idea, and wondered, just wondered, if Nelly's father could in fact be a dog taken in by one of her friends. She would send a picture.

The one thing you probably least want to hear about your crazy little pup is that her father is named Houdini. But I must remember that that is how she got to be Nelly in the first place: the deliverer of her genes was able to scale a significant fence whenever he heard the call of the wild, and climb back in when he heard the call of the food dish.

To me, and perhaps to you as you look at the picture above, Houdini looks like he just laid down his crack pipe. So Nelly comes by her personality quite naturally. She is not a cross of anything: she is pure Houdini, and he is sui generis.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Scotland Dreaming

It was late in life that Errol Flynn occurred to me. Better late than never. And since he is immortal, though quite dead and out of reach, it doesn't much matter when you first realize, Oh, my god. He can stay forever the dimpled god of Robin Hood, and if you like, he may never mature into the dissipated man, lightly filmed with whiskey-smelling scum, who drags himself through The Master of Ballantrae. But as my seven-year-old son never read, as I did, of the actor's shocking self-abuse in My Wicked, Wicked Ways, he saw only a swashbuckler with a glinting sword, and he developed a desire right there to visit the rocky land that grows castles more readily than any other crop.

It is a good thing that the cinematic ghost of Errol Flynn haunts the same land of origin of the Errol Flynn of dogs, the border collie. And so a plan is being hatched in my house, one that will involve a transatlantic flight.

I am reading The Farmer's Dog by John Holmes, a British dog trainer who wrote this first practical manual on working sheepdogs in 1960. It is full of plainspoken gems--here's one I just read on p. 51, and you want to go find the author and pump his hand vigorously for it: "I have serious doubts about the intelligence of those people who teach dogs to walk along bumping up against their owners' left legs and gazing up into their faces like demented idiots. It certainly does not point to any intelligence in the dogs." Beyond the stupidity factor, I have always hated the sound of the word "obedience," which makes me try to imagine exactly what happens when ears are boxed, or the taste of soap on the tongue. (The latter I don't have to work too hard to call up, since I have experienced it, grace of my schoolteacher grandmother who was brought up squarely in the Age of Obedience, when children should be seen but not heard, and when to spare the rod was to spoil the child--which motto she actually inscribed on the old butter paddle she wielded against the unruly children in her midst, and then gave to one of these grandchildren as a keepsake.) The idea of pursuing Obedience as something fun or interesting seems to me, rather, good cause for embarking on a long course of psychotherapy. When militarism is personally attractive, this is a matter for professional help.

Besides, then you've got to contend with the notion of disobedience, which is even more frightening. I suspect that it's mainly people who have never taught either their dogs or their children what they want them to do who most often punish them for "willful disobedience." If you accept, as I now do (having tithed myself a member of the Church of Behaviorism), that the only behaviors that will recur are the ones that have yielded some reward for having been performed, then these punishments are being meted out to someone who couldn't really help doing what they did. How can this be right? So here's my latest sissy pantywaist idea: all punishment is a crime. A nonpunishable crime, then, alas. Well, I never said I couldn't at least contemplate the delights of revenge.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of the word "collie" is uncertain, but that it probably derives from "coaly," as in black. And when I think of a coaly black sheepdog, I most often see him lying in front of a smoldering fire in a rough Welsh farm hut, while the night winds sweep the furze outside. But the sheep are safe. Because, as the OED says, collies are "a breed of sheepdogs remarkable for their sagacity."

Remarkable, oh yes. I suddenly remembered the other day how coaly Mercy, in the unforgivable absence of sheep to tend, would chase cars whenever she got the chance. But not every car. For she employed her higher maths to determine the speed of an approaching vehicle, and when she figured it was going too fast to successfully pen, she saved her energy and coolly let it pass. The next one might be appropriately paced, at which point she would launch herself at the proper angle of intercept.

Driving yesterday through the unpeopled wilds of the middle of Pennsylvania, looking at the old hills flash by in a series of endless green steps, I imagined that this was how Scotland might look, when I get there.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Old Dog, New Tricks

If you knew me, it would not surprise you to know how little I think of being human. I am not a member of the Homo Sapiens Are Sacred booster club. It's big enough without me. Let me just cast my puny vote for the opposing team. I find humans generally myopic, tiresome about their own achievements, fatally narcissistic, and dully narrow and therefore stupid about our purported intelligence. We are the creators of Cheez Whiz and the destroyers of everything, and counting Da Vinci, Duke Ellington, and Dennis Kucinich among our number doesn't outweigh the colossal idiocies that oppose them.

Not that I want to be a dog, mind you. Because dogs end up living on chains, dead under the wheels of our tanks, I mean cars, or stunned on the other side of a closing door, left behind, always left behind, shut off from life and love, maybe for eight hours at a stretch though they can never be sure it's not going to be eight years.

I miss Nelly (from heartland Ohio). We are different species, and that is why she can't be with me. She can't ride the bus or the train or the plane, so I must shut the door and say the words she can't understand: I'm sorry; I'll be back soon. The reason we love and need our dogs is precisely because they are another species (see above re. "constancy"; also, they are non-self-cheerleaders; and generally not aware of how great they are), and that is also the great tragedy in our relationship. There is a great divide between us that can never really be bridged--and if it were, then we'd all be the same and would thus bore one another to tears with self-congratulation. But we do manage to bridge it in other ways, both productive and not (including projection), that together form the routes over which our love passes.*

*[They are also what constitute, according to the very human (see my definition above) Jon Katz, the "new work of dogs," to be our companions, friends, and surrogates. As if we were somehow sick and they the pill.]

At the moment, I have to settle for the occasional all-over body maul by Monty the Boston terrier. He reminds me of nothing so much as those Mexican jumping beans, clicking in their plastic container, from one's youth--what were they, truly? And does one want to know? Monty is so happy to see you, or perhaps, really, to see me, who gives him treats from the jar at my sister's house and snacks from the plate, who tosses his ball in the backyard, while his family goes on its merry and over-scheduled way. Monty gets to spend hours and hours alone on the porch while the kids play those sports Americans are so fond of, and that seem to be prep school for an adulthood of toeing the line, asking no questions, and sublimating the individual to the will of the mass.

I get reports of what my girl is doing at home, and I can easily imagine her at the feet of Jolanta as she talks to me on the phone, telling tales of burrs and growls. Nelly would be asleep there at her feet but with one eye out for Juni's approach. Never mind that Jolanta belongs to Juni--she is his prime resource, after all, firmly but gently cradled in his mouth. No, everything in the world belongs to Nelly, including the dirty dishes in the dishwasher and the very nice and fairly expensive Italian foam mattress from Design Within Reach. You'd think she'd paid the MasterCard on that one, given how she growls from it when she hears Juni's step on the staircase while she possesses the entire queen-size bed (and queen-size human on the bed) upstairs. She does not utter a peep, however, when it's Izzy the grande dame's feet making their way past the bedroom door, on her way to Jolanta in the guest room. Dogs make such distinctions. It is not for us to understand them.

I also heard about Juni's great discovery: he learned to open the screen door to let himself outside. Necessity is the mother of invention, and he needs to pee an awful lot after a creek swim. He takes on water like an old motor skiff. But the real mother of invention here is the fact that Juni is clicker trained, and Jolanta often whiles away the time doing shaping exercises with him. So she has created a dog who knows that if he just keeps trying, he will hit upon the key to the reward. Nothing is quite so rewarding as an emtpy bladder after experiencing a too-full one. It must have been worth all the trials he went through before finding that a paw on the brass lever yields pee-able shrub.

And, with my heart in my throat, I heard about Nelly's hand-over to Janet, who's taking care of her for the last four days, from Jolanta, who has to head back home. From the cornfields, she sees Jolanta's car driving away, and even though Pack #2, including boyfriend Willy and dispenser of chicken jerky Janet, is right there, she decides to stay with Jolanta. Which means running down the road next to her car. It was a little miracle that Jolanta even saw this black and white "speck" racing at, what, 20 mph? Another one of Nelly's nine hundred lives bites the dust. And proof that dogs don't like it when you close the door. Even if you tell them, "I'll be back soon." Nelly, I will.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Tomorrow I leave on summer vacation. I use that term loosely. For we are going to Ohio. This is not most people's idea of a satisfactory summer holiday objective. Winter, fall, or spring, either. I alone know the charms and hidden beauties of this heartland nowheresville. You guessed the punch line: I grew up there.

But it took having a dog to discover its urban wilds, the parks clinging to the precipitous banks of the rivers that made northeast Ohio the hotspot of a new industrial age. The dog I'm not referring to is the childhood bichon, Tarara Bheumdier (my mother has a finely tuned sense of humor, as evinced by her name for this poor small creature), for whom I will always carry a heavy load of guilt and simple love intermixed. Most dog owners today also carry similar burdens for their inadvertently maltreated childhood dogs. See, she was never off-leash in her entire life. That should be a punishable crime, by the way: if you never let your dog off-leash you should be made to forfeit, oh, I don't know, cigarettes after sex, or the new HBO series you would decline your best friend's wedding in order not to miss.

It was Mercy that made us discover Akron's great parklands. She was the cartographer of the most important places: wherever we went, we would stare at maps until they revealed all their largest green blots, indicating parks uncut by roads. Because Mercy demanded her wide off-leash runs--she was a terror without them--and because of her style, which meant that most of the time we had no idea where she was, just that she was assiduously tracking us. We would lose her someplace behind us, and she would eventually bound out onto the path far ahead of us, having drawn a great circle in the woods. Satisfied, she would disappear again.

But on this trip, Nelly will not be able to explore the trails at the great Oak Hill, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, or the Metroparks that hug the banks of waterways that sometimes smell highly suspicious. My favorite of these alas has dual perils: a police firing range across the street--not well situated for a dog who at the classic age of three developed a sound sensitivity that appears to be worsening--and prime rabbit habitat in the thicket of brambles by the edge of the Little Cuyahoga. It's a beautiful walk. But I don't walk without dogs anymore.

No, Nelly will stay here, first with one posse--Jolanta, with Juni and Izzy--followed by another, Janet, with Dixie and Willy. That's because of a Boston terrier.

When we had had Nelly for only a month or so, a little puppy who could fit into your palm, who slept next to my face except for the twelve times a night she woke, my father became gravely ill. We all rushed to Ohio, and we would have been sunk were it not for the fact that my sister had fully suburbanized. She had twelve-foot-high solid picket fence around the backyard, ready to repel invading armies (squirrels with two-inch muskets? boys wielding slingshots, trying to figure out how to get back to the 1935 Sunday comics?). While we spent ten-hour days at the hospital, Nelly and her "cousin," Monty the Boston terrier, spent their raucous days in the yard, chasing each other from one end to the other. I could tell by how far Monty's choked snorts of breathing carried through the bugless utopian air how much fun he was having. (Remind me to regale you with my unsolicited opinion on the ethics of breeding dogs who can't breathe properly, cope with normal extremes of temperature, or deliver their own young.)

The next time we visited, six months or a year later, Nelly was growling and lunging at her beloved cuz for such crimes as looking at a toy from across the room, or walking through the kitchen while Nelly manned her fortifications under the dining table.

The third time we visited--Merry Christmas, all the bells are ringing--we had apparently brought Cujo. When she spotted Monty through the glass door (and mind you, she was in his house while he was outdoors), her fangs were positively dripping. But whose dog was this?

That put an end to sweet cute Nelly, my darling Jelly Belly, my kind-hearted Little Lulu, being welcome in upper-middle-class Akron. But why can't we all just get along? Nelly is keeping her own counsel on this matter, and will sleep with a succession of friends here in firmly middle-class New York State for the next eleven days.

Perhaps her change of heart partakes of the same twist that visited my odd and echoing brain the other day when I paged past a newspaper ad for the movie "Hairspray." The banner quote read, "So joyful, so full of enthusiasm!" or so says A.O. Scott of the Times. What I saw read, "So joyful, so full of euthanasia." Like mother, like daughter.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Time Travel

Love and constancy. So simple, so necessary. So effing impossible to attain. Except if you're a dog. Then they come easy. Like scenting an ancient fish carcass from a quarter mile and applying it to the neck with the abandon of a fifteen-year-old girl at Macy's perfume counter. Love and constancy are as central among doggy attributes as teeth and tails.

What kind of idiot would not want a dog therefore? We're all a bunch of broken toys, wind-up keys askew, lurching from one bang-up to another, hurting and being hurt, sometimes smashing our heads onto sharp corners. The one thing we desire most is the one thing we most frequently sabotage. I'm thinking love is very much like the rear end of my station wagon on the day at the hardware store when I used it to express my innermost state. I put the car into reverse, applied the accelerator with a certain impatience, turned the wheel, and forgot that small detail, looking behind. The truck I hit had its own very long emotional history, so I did not need to go tell the owner that I had added another concavity to the many eloquent stories already recorded there. I did, however, have to pay $700 to remove from our car the marks of my own symbolic act.

At the New England Border Collie Rescue fundraising event ("Dog Dayz") my son and I went to this weekend--a living museum of the canine world's greatest works of art--I wondered about the advisability, or inevitability, of attempting to re-create the past in order to repair some big life dents. With one of these dogs in my life, I would have a shot at bringing Mercy back. And of returning to a time when, I foolishly persist in believing, hope and happiness, love and constancy, prevailed. You already know the end of this story, don't you?

My gambit is a little more circuitous, though. I want to try to help my son to repair the ugly dings he has lately acquired. The paint kit will be black and white, with a plumey tail--or, to put it another way, the dog I want, but now the dog he needs.

The seed was put in my head by our trainer, who noticed how much my son enjoyed playing agility with Nelly at the annual K9Crazy Playskool Christmas party; he still speaks with pride of how he got her to go through the candy-cane weave poles, even though it had quite a lot to do with a certain piece of hot dog. (Well, for me too: as I've written previously, my relationship with Nelly, as well as with my son, or my parents for that matter, is not so much a love-and-constancy thing as it is actually a food-provision-creates-love-and-constancy-mythology thing. But I'm in a nostalgic mood right now.) Wouldn't it help him mend, she said, to work with Nelly in class by himself?

Never give me an idea. Because it gives me an even better one. I saw how I could now have it all: the second dog I wanted, only it would "belong" to him, because he could name it, train it, and feed it. Of course, the responsibility would be mine--no eight-year-old could take it on--but with that last item in the list acting as magic potion, this dog would want to lie at his feet the way Nelly does at mine. In that simple act she gives me something I have never had before, and something I do not wish to live without.

This ridiculous idea was quickly squashed by the pragmatic heel of my dear friend (and dog trainer) Jolanta. She didn't know it, but she also might have saved me from walking into some deep psychic waters. I remained unaware that they would darkly close over my head, even though I had found myself floundering in them just last week.

I was driving away quickly, as if pain were a locale. When I reached Brooklyn, I would finally escape it.

The customary route is now the Battery Tunnel. But it costs money, and suddenly I was seeing before me a new life in which I would sit up late, stacking pennies into red paper rolls. Now it was late Monday night, rain-slicked, and the Brooklyn Bridge was empty. Free, also.

I followed the way off an old map stored in memory. Because this was the route of a thousand trips--after dinners, after parties, after movies; in the back of a cab with my head on someone's shoulder, or in a car I drove carefully, trying to stay in lane after a cocktail or two, so I could get to the place I used to call home. I can't remember. Maybe I heard this in a piece of song that floated by once, at twilight, say, and I'm imagining it was mine.

The front tires hit the upswing, and that's when I knew I shouldn't have. I shouldn't have gone anywhere near our past, which resides at the junction of physical place and embroidered memory. Now my old life was rising up before me, all around me. The lights of Brooklyn were almost singing, sirens of synesthesia in a mind neurologically altered by pain. They drew me toward the rocks, and I thought I was lost, until I looked through the windshield and saw myself, taking the corner at Douglass and Third Avenue, Mercy at the end of the leash. I was hoping she would squat soon, so I could get home, put on my pajamas, maybe watch the 11 o'clock news in bed together. Then I vanished, because I could no longer see through the windows. The rain. Or no. Not the rain.

So dangerous to go back. But I can't say I am sorry even now, when remembering the remembering makes me cry once more. I have a need to feel this way, I think. I know I will come danger's way again. Not now but someday soon, I know I will get another dog, for something to recall in the future, and for my son.

Friday, August 3, 2007


Nelly had a very Nelly day today. And I had a very childish one. That is, I was conversing a lot with my child today about Nelly, about animals and why they do what they do.

I gave my son the second-grade version of the ol' Cycle of Life rigmarole: everything is food for something else, and some things are food for lots of things, which is why so many of them are born (rabbits, mice). I couldn't remember what eats hawks. Then my son asked what eats humans. Hmmm. Something needs to get on the case immediately. Not much anymore, sweetie, which is the short answer to the long question of why I can't let you ride your bicycle on the road, or be my little man and take out the garbage all by yourself as you plead--too many of us.

We talked about the only controls there are on the human population: disease, natural disaster, and war. This wise seven-year-old proclaimed war a bad idea, and wondered why someone didn't just stop it. Indeed. However, he allowed, there had been three necessary wars: the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. I countered with something that just occurred to me in that moment (and you're going to be amazed how smart I am!): if someone could have, would have, rearranged the economic system of the South, so that the great plantations that were unworkable without masses of slave labor would no longer require it, the war might have been averted. Do you think the people of the South were genuinely more evil than the abolitionists of the North? Or is this great monument called Morality nothing but expedience in regal robes?

It will come as no surprise to the average church-goer that we are proud of our virtues, and ashamed of their failures. Because fail they must. "You're only human," your friends will soothe. But that is merely a half-truth: you are an animal in an environment that continually rewards or punishes you. And everything you do--whether you build a curlicued fable about the story or not--is in service to naught but your survival, your DNA, or your pleasure.

It's all about the resources, baby. I am an acolyte in the Marvin Harris Church of Economics Rule All Behavior (aka cultural materialism). If you possess a nose for truth (and to me truth is the only perfume worth smelling, the most sensually exciting substance on the planet), try reading Harris's Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches or Cannibals and Kings. See if there aren't vast clouds of sweet-smelling truth issuing from these books. His explanation of the sacred cows of India, for example, could not ring any more of truth if it had been cast of bronze and came with a clapper. These cows (and they have to be these cows, because another breed would not be suited to the requirements of their hard lives of labor and sporadic food) are resources in a very particular environment. The religious proscription against eating them is fol-de-rol applied later: the real reason they don't eat them is because they'd be eating the one possession they have that will enable them to survive.

Wars, man's inhumanity to man (TM), systems of governance and rituals and institutions and all manner of inexplicable behavior--all boil down to resources, presence or lack thereof.

Why didn't anyone stop those bad wars? Good question, darling. [Perhaps because they were all started by men, whose emotional development almost always seems unable to progress past the age of eight? Just kidding.] My son's face brightened. "Maybe I could stop wars!"

And you know what? In that moment something filled me with a proud spreading warmth, and I believed: yes. You just might grow up to be humankind's impossibility. For you are my child, and there is nothing you could not do. First, however, you might want to think about becoming a behavior analyst.

In some ways I think that children are idiot savants. Or at least they are keen watchers, like the dog. They see a barely perceptible tremor pass through an isolated muscle in the face, and they know it means something. Their sensorium is more acute than that of the grownup, and we have forgotten what it is like to see through youthful eyes.

Children do know things we don't. I have seen a child recoil in fear from a dog who was threatening harm (and perpetrated it, too), even though the dog's benighted owners never could figure out what signal preceded his bite. (The dog was ours, another lifetime ago, and is the subject for another time, provided I can gather the courage to revisit a black dog named Roscoe, sweet and sad and violent and treated therefore to the ultimate violence in return.) Smaller children, say under three, may not have developed this ability to react with appropriate fear--and I would guess this is the age group who most often visits the plastic surgeon after a session of ear-pulling. It would make sense that we would go through developmental stages of fear formation: Mercy up to the age of nine months thought children were cotton candy for dogs. Then they became like, um, snakes are to me. They make me scream, notwithstanding that they live in my house. But my three-year-old boy gleefully reached for one on the lawn.

It was a Nelly day because she has learned to jump out the car window if it is not rolled almost all the way up. She exercised this new agility event as I was dropping off at a birthday party--went and immediately offloaded the indigestibles from her colon right before the front door with the hostess looking on, then dashed around to the back looking for digestive system replacements (birthday cake would have done just fine), then ran in the back door and caused much squealing among the diminutive guests. I caught her as she sped through the kitchen in search of that cake.

At home, she got out of the car, and stood still as a stone as she spied a small brown furry creature down near the barn, who likewise froze, but for different reasons. Then, white blur.

My son asked, "Mom, what is Nelly saying?" I told him she was saying exactly the same thing he says when he see one of those pictograms of a soft ice cream cone as we drive by the dairy bar. Words wouldn't work as well. She said, I said, Yum.