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