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.