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.