I have shelter, clothing, more than enough food and drink–trust me, blossoms and birds to please my eyes, and most of all love. I look out from the hut, which itself would not exist but for the COVID pandemic, and think to myself, “John, you’re in paradise.” Continue reading
The Sounds at Present Crows are making a ruckus in the neighborhood. Some game is afoot. The rightful claim to a squirrel carcass is in dispute maybe. A Duraflame faux wood-burning stove is sighing warm air around my writing hut, … Continue reading
For starters, I expect snickers, snorts and eye rolls, and I’m prepared to be corrected, though I won’t concede without some back and forth. That said, I’ll present my case directly: The two most powerful agents in the world are … Continue reading
A Girl Named Al and the Other Regulars
I can’t decide whether to feel guilty about a quirky, not-very-important dynamic having to do with the family dog’s routine.
About five times each week, the Coleman’s foxhound, Sherlock Holmes, goes to a dog park on Erie’s east side, several acres of fenced-in grass and trees.
Not to brag, but my lanky detective is a conversation piece among the regulars. He lustily announces his arrival with hoops and hollers as we pull into our parking spot. When I swing the gate open, he barrels toward the biggest cluster of dogs and skids to a miraculous stop in their midst without crashing into anybody. A session of chase quickly ensues, with Sherlock leading takers in a Rorschach pattern until by mutual consent they stop for a panting break, spittle flipping off of their tongues.
Thus loosened up, Mr. Holmes heads to a far corner for his daily constitutional. Yesterday the game was furiously afoot, such that four participants got nature’s memorandum at the same instant and dropped into the telltale crouch that, frankly, makes them look silly. (We might all learn from dogs the practical lesson that exercise can keep us regular.) Their communal bathroom break was no big surprise, as dogs tend to follow suit.
For example, wherever snouts assemble, sniff tests are sure to be conducted. Some days, however, they can’t get enough of each other, which has me shouting, “All right, knock it off already!” In fact, our best friends have a policy akin to Murphy’s Law: “Awkward behaviors increase in proportion to the embarrassment they cause.”
This principle holds true with the most cringe-worthy, bawdy demonstration of dominance. One afternoon this summer, some human must have slipped steroids into the communal water bowls—that and/or Spanish Fly—as both males and females did nothing else for half hour other than show each other who was boss in the most sophomoric way possible. After dozens of protests, we moms and dads shrugged and actually resorted to chatting with each other.
I exaggerate here only slightly. A fair amount of kibitzing does take place at the park, but for wife Kathy and me, the primary relationships are between ourselves and the dogs.
Which brings me to the dynamic on my mind: I can rattle off a baker’s dozen of dogs, but need only two fingers for the human names I recall. What does this say about me? People are more important than their pets, right?
I know Zero, Milo, Onyx, Titan, Max, Dexter, Gracie, Buck, Bailey, Prince, Zeus, Evy, Lego, Luna and Willow. And then there’s one of my favorites, Al, a female Rhodesian Ridgeback whose proper name is Alpine. The friendliest and least rambunctious regular, she was bred to hunt lions and other large game.
Used to be she would trot up as soon as I arrived and let me scratch the short Mohawk on her back. This was a thing, a ritual I came to love. Then she disappeared for a couple of months. There had been some dustups between dogs and spats between people, with the former acting more civilized than the latter. Anyway, I figured Al’s dad thought, “Forget this noise. We’re out of here.”
Turns out Al might have had ringworm and her dad kept her away out of consideration. But yesterday she strode into the place. I gave her time to renew old acquaintances before hollering from a good 50 yards away. “Alpine! Hey, Alpine, come here!”
To my delight, she made for me with steam in her stride. Holy cow! I’m not a huge presence in her life, just a park buddy. Still, once you’ve employed scratches, pats and sweet nothings to ask, “Can we be friends?” your heart’s doors swing open to let in a love as profound as that bandied about by humans. A dog’s affection is pure, no hidden agenda to rouse suspicion, no axe to grind.
Al, Gracie and the rest give me an infusion of uncomplicated joy, like a serum that cures scurvy of the soul.
So my mind is made up. Sherlock goes to the park to run off surplus energy, but I need to get there as much as he does. When I call my pals by name and they come to visit, something inside me feels right—hopeful, light, calm. For now I’ll grant myself special dispensation. Once the dogs make my heart big enough, I’ll ask what their moms and dads go by.
Love Begets Love
Dogs have occupied my thoughts lately, mostly because foxhound Sherlock Holmes, who moved in last December, finally reached a milestone that his predecessor Watson had licked from day one. Our lanky detective hopped up on our queen-sized bed, curled into a big boney oval at my feet and slept there all night long. His first night with us, black lab-terrier mix Watson yipped and yiped in his crate until Kathy and I relented and nestled him between us.
This was adorable, but risky. He wasn’t housebroken. Whether by miracle or fate, Watson leaked not a drop. I suppose he knew that he had found room in the safest of inns. There wasn’t more than a handful of nights from 2004 to 2016 that Watson didn’t snore in the crook of Kathy’s leg or under the shelter my arm, his head pressing my nose flat.
His stay with us was sickeningly affectionate from the start. Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, has been sizing us up at his own cautious pace. I don’t blame him. He endured trauma of some sort during his three years before landing at the shelter where we found him.
The nerved up guy becomes a maelstrom of fang and claw whenever we try to administer medicine. No malice is intended. He’ll let me dig deep into his ears for some heavenly itching—my fingertips nearly meet at the center of his skull—but let me sneak a dab of ointment into the transaction, and he beats a retreat and says, “Et tu, Brute!”
Our veterinarian prescribed a sedative should we need to bring our leggy pal in for treatment. Sherlock’s initial checkup was bananas. Imagine subduing a creature wildly swinging four fur-covered shillelaghs tipped with little spikes. Again, it’s nothing personal, only no injections or palpating permitted.
So the intimacy between dog and human that profoundly nourishes both has been slow to take hold. Son Micah smears peanut butter on his nose to invite a kiss. Meanwhile, Kathy and I have patted our mattress and pleaded ourselves hoarse: “Come on, buddy. Come up with us.”
As so often happens in my life, the milestone passed quietly and unbidden. The other day Sherlock was suddenly up on the bed, sleeping as if engaged in a routine. Same thing happened the following night, but since then he has occupied the couch.
We’re not complaining, though. When his doggy synapses so compel him, he’ll arrive to hog our legroom and give both of us a reassuring pat on the spirit. Meanwhile, the Colemans have decided to let Watson of blessed memory be Watson and let Holmes, here among the quick, be Holmes.
Not that there’s any alternative. What’s true of dogs is true of humans and anybody else with hearts and eyeballs. During a recent session of chin wagging, friend Judi put the matter perfectly. As we lamented folks with disputatious personalities, she tapped a verbal gavel: “Sometimes you have to accept people the way they are.”
The late Fred Rogers would agree, and so do I. Obviously the path of acceptance shouldn’t lead to staying in an abusive relationship, hobnobbing with a psychopath or spooning with a king cobra, whose venom the Encyclopaedia Britannica claims can “kill an elephant in just a few hours.”
Old pal Watson’s worst offense was sudden crystal-shattering barks for no discernible reason. We learned to live with it. Sherlock’s baying is equally loud, but we know exactly what he’s fussing about.
When I get home in an hour, he’ll be jonesing to run. I mean, he sprints with such abandon that his back legs can’t keep up with his front. The result: those back legs dangle behind his body, momentarily swaying carefree until they touch down again.
Until I drive Sherlock to the dog park’s glorious acres, he’ll hoop and whine and wander about the house, clicking his nails on the hardwood floor. There’s no changing this foxhound’s stripes or taming what his Creator intended for him.
Funny thing is, I’ve come to love our goofy dog exactly as he is. With each passing day, his place in the family grows more sweet and easy. And this is the moral, if you ask me. Acceptance begets acceptance. Love begets love.
I can see this truth in Sherlock’s face—I swear. We let him be who he is, and he understands somehow or other, “These people love me. I think I’m going to like it here.”
My stride has been ragged lately, my groove flummoxed. As the poet said, “Nothing is plumb, level, or square.” Or the politician: “What a terrible thing it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is.”
Joy is largely to blame. Wife Kathy and I had friends over the other night to catch up. When eyes turned toward me, I said, “I’m happy,” which took some explaining. During the last couple of years, though surrounded by more love and support than anyone deserves, I have been tired and stressed. Maybe burnout is the word. Against all worldly good sense, Kathy and I raided my retirement funds and bought a hermit-sized home. (“You might come to regret that,” an old colleague said, and I couldn’t disagree.) I left a fourteen-year, full-time pastorate and accepted a part-time call seventy miles south of Erie, right through the region’s snow belt. Oh, and we haven’t sold our big house yet.
We Colemans have either lost our minds or found them. It could be that you have to lose one mind to find another. Since gladness and good sense seldom form right angles, I’m not surprised that my stride and groove—constructs of a neurotic brain—are stepping lightly these days.
I didn’t use these words exactly to unpack “I’m happy” for my friends, but they understood. Forced to choose between weary, anxious circumstances standing in crisp formation or calm ambiguity weaving like a drunkard, I’ll take the latter.
That is to say, I have taken the latter and am learning to embrace uncertainty and surprises. Lately sleep has been whimsical. A new work schedule has taken issue with my long-standing afternoon habit of napping. Like an AARP veteran, I’m reading in bed at 8:30 p.m. and surrendering by 9:00 or 9:30. The result: I wake up at 2:00 a.m., float to the bathroom, return to bed, and abide in a space that is to sleep what free association is to therapy.
Neither refreshed enough to get up nor drowsy enough to disappear, I breathe. Deep breaths, yes, but not those of my past, taken to lift a burden just enough to endure another hour or hush a remark that can’t be retrieved. If insomnia is an enemy, my peculiar wakefulness is a bearer of gifts.
Darkness is upsetting if you’re trying to find something, but it’s a gentle companion if you’re waiting to be found. A few nights ago snoring found me, not my own, but wife’s and dog’s. The sounds, joining for a moment then going their own ways, were blessings. Kathy has been swollen, weak, and achy for the last couple of months, and neither we nor the doctors know why. No matter what noise it makes, her sleep is medicinal. I welcome it. And Watson has weeks rather than months to live. The fatty tumor on his flank is getting hard. The growth on his forehead pains him more by the day. I now hope to come home and find that he has slipped away while dreaming that he and I are going for a run like we did years ago. His snore means that we don’t have to say goodbye quite yet. God bless his kind soul, even our walls and floors will miss him. I think now of his eyes, alive and expectant when Kathy and I left him this morning, and am close to undone.
The first decoration I nailed up in the Coleman’s new home is wisdom from a rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“Just to be” in a warm bed next to Kathy; “just to live” one more day with Watson: these are the teachings of wakefulness. My chest rises and falls, each in-breath a blessing, each out-breath sacred.
But my darkness isn’t deceptive. It would never say to a lost soul, “Just to be is a blessing.”
Instead I hear, “One corner of your joy will always be uneven, cracked with grief. Whatever mind you possess, it will never be satisfied.”
In this moment, I close my eyes to learn, invite the 2:00 a.m. wakefulness, and hear the rabbi more clearly. Breathing is grace. I survive on love. And I pray: “When my dog dies, Holy One, please help him not to be afraid.”
By the time you took your first sip of coffee, a cop had already shown up, taken information from barista Tony, and loaded two pet carriers and bag of cat food into his cruiser. I didn’t see the woman pacing in the parking lot, trying to stay calm through a frantic phone call. I didn’t see her throw her arms up in the air, hop into her car, and speed off. Somebody else did, though, and got her license plate number. Now she is in trouble. You don’t leave a cat, dog, and Meow Mix in Starbucks’ parking lot and hope for the best.
If you were my daughter, I would have told you the whole story as soon as you sat down, ending with how sorry I felt not only for the pets, but also the woman. As if thinking out loud, I would ask what crisis led her to that moment and say as an aside, “Ah, hell, I guess we all do things we can’t take back.”
If you were my daughter, you would already know that I always want love and understanding to have the last word, which often makes my heart like a mutt the neighbors let bark outside hour after hour, the temperature sinking on a December night.
But you’re not my daughter. You spoke on your phone so quietly I could tell only that the language wasn’t English. The likelihood of my offspring randomly sitting down next to me and having a conversation in, say, French, is remote. And, of course, I wouldn’t have been stopped short at first by your beauty. I would know your birthday, where you are in your twenties.
You didn’t stay long, ten minutes and out the door. I watched and wondered. What car is yours? Where are you off to? But you walked so aimlessly, taking pictures of God-knows-what, I figured maybe you weren’t headed anywhere. Not to the bulky old Buick or maroon minivan, not to the Fox and Hound English Pub and Grille or Shoe Carnival or Ollie’s Bargain Outlet.
I stood to see you off. Your leather knapsack—almost empty?—was finally a black dot against your jean jacket. Then you were gone, and I couldn’t decide whether to be happy or worry. Going no place in particular can feel like grace if you know how to be alone and you’re not shouldering much weight.
If you were my daughter, I would be glad we didn’t talk about what you missed: the woman now rushing from suffering to punishment; the long-haired cat with eyes wide and still, waiting to slip from a carrier to the warm, bright sleeping spot on the back of the couch; the cop transporting animals, both trying not to be thrown by sharp turns, both able to remember and love.
If you were my daughter, you would probably say, “Damn, Daddy, lighten up.”
“Yeah,” I would say, “you’re right.”
But I might not be clueless about your next stop. Hopeful? Desolate? Either way, we could meet for lunch, and I would say, as if thinking out loud, “When a father loves his daughter, she always has at least one good place to be.”
At the Millcreek Mall, Micah and I pass the Food Court and a pet store on the way to the E-cig kiosk. Smells: from Subway to General Tso’s chicken to pizza to a chemical cleaner that’s no match for pet poo.
A couple of kids play with a pup–maybe a Weimaraner, not sure–through the glass. The transaction seems friendly. The kids aren’t taunting; the dog’s having fun, spinning, reaching its paws toward them.
As I wait for Micah to pick up his cappuccino-flavored liquid tobacco, I begin to feel as though I’m from another world. Earth is pulling my leg.
In front of me is an establishment devoted mostly to eyebrows and eyelashes.
“Oh,” I think, “you can get some kind of fabric woven into your eyebrows if you want them darker or you can make a weak mustache sturdy with facial threading.” But an eye-hair business? In this world, gracious, what you can buy!
After Micah pays, we head back the way we came. “Can you believe it,” I say, “a place where all they do is weave fake hair into your eyebrows and grow your lashes?”
“Uh, Dad,” Micah says, “I think with threading they roll thread over your hair to pull it out.”
Ah. Duly noted.
Back by the pet store, the kids are gone. The dog is lying in its cage–looking for more kids?
In this world, animals that we consider friends are for sale. Dozens here alone, like sofas or flat screen televisions.
We sell what can love, fear, even save. And we micro-manage our eyebrows.
Dear World, please stop fooling around. Some of these jokes make me tired and sad.
Of course you can’t read, but I’m writing this letter for myself. So please sit still and pretend to listen.
When you stood at my side of the bed this morning and sighed, I knew what you were saying: “It hurts for me to hop up on the bed.” That’s why I hold open the blankets and wait. When you’re ready to try, it means curling up beside me is worth the extra ache in those bum legs of yours. And I know, even if you don’t, that you won’t be able to jump much longer. I thought about getting a futon but figured the longer you have to work, the longer you’ll be around.
I sure do love you, old buddy. I love that every time I climb the steps and lie down for a nap, you hobble up with me. Your nails clicking as you scrape them across each step reminds me that eventually you won’t be able to make it to the second floor. Your mother doesn’t know this yet, but when you’re grounded, I’ll lobby for moving our room to the first floor and getting a bed that’s Watson friendly. You’ve had a place in our sleep for around ten years; I won’t abandon you to the cold floor as you near the end.
Actually, you’ve had a place in our sleep from your first night in the Coleman house. Downstairs in the puppy crate, you yipped and howled, so I did something ridiculous. Knowing you weren’t house broken, I still picked you up, brought you upstairs, and settled you in bed between your mother and me. Guess what? It was as if the winter world you were rescued from had disappeared, and you were at peace. I kept expecting to wake up soaked in pee, but all night you slept between us, a black fur ball of relief. Dry. Safe. Home. Love.
You’ve been a gift to me, Watson. Sure, you have some annoying habits. If a squirrel squeaks on the boulevard, your alarm bark is like a funhouse scare–way out of proportion to the threat! For reasons I’ve never figured out, you take five seconds to decide if you want a treat from the table. I hold out a chunk of steak gristle, and you sniff and stare with suspicion. This is in violation of the Code of Dog Behavior, but you are gentle, which is good. You are the only dog I’ve ever seen who wanders when he craps. Cleaning up the backyard means sleuthing down a couple dozen micro-turds rather than spotting five or six robust piles from yards away. (Since your mom covers scooping detail, catching sight of you doing a pooping pirouette is more funny than upsetting.)
Finally, and increasingly, when we’re napping you point your bum toward my face and crack nasties. You know, the barber no longer needs to trim my eyebrows. They’re all gone. Damn, Watty. But you’re around eighty, so I can make allowances. Besides, farts in the animal kingdom aren’t frowned upon. Neither is indiscriminate humping, though you are rarely so inclined. Thanks, pal.
You probably have a couple years left, but who knows? I suspect you understand in your wordless spirit how grateful I am for you: how you lick my hand and face in the morning; how you wait for me to finish praying before going down for breakfast; how you used to love running with me so much you’d press on even when your nails bled from dragging across the pavement; how you lay down beside me when I’m writing at the dining room table–just to be close, I guess.
Silly people argue about whether dogs have souls. Walt Whitman once wrote about your kind:
I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.
As far as I know, Watson, you don’t commit my sins: take too much to heart, nurse grudges, insult others, and fall short of love in a thousand other ways. You, on the other hand, seem motivated entirely by love–when you’re not scheming to get extra Milk Bones. But I’m in no position to call you a glutton.
Between the two of us, my old napping partner, I bet you have the bigger soul. None of us knows what eternity looks like, and as I said, you probably have some good time left. But hear this in your dog heart: I pray that we both have a place at the Final Table, that we can look into the face of Perfect Love and eat our share, and when the meal is over, we can climb stairs to the bedroom on strong legs. I pray there’s space in Forever for me to rest my face against your gentle head, put a hand on your paw, and nap away an endless afternoon.
The Coleman family’s black lab, terrier mix is named after Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. John Watson. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Watson is intelligent, insightful, not like Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of a hapless, bumbling partner to Basil Rathbone’s smooth-operating Holmes. If you want to see a faithful adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, find the Granada Television’s series starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke (or David Burke). The Brits keep close to Conan Doyle, so when Watson seems inept, it’s only because he’s working beside Holmes, who can solve a crime by noticing how butter has melted or how a rope has been cut. Nobody can keep up with Holmes.
When the name Watson came to me, I was thinking of Hardwicke or Burke, but the dog I fell in love with the moment neighbor Meg brought him as a stray to our door has proven to be more like Nigel Bruce’s Watson. He’s the friendliest dog you’ll ever meet, though you wouldn’t think so if you rang the doorbell. He barks so loudly and long that you’d think his eyeballs would fly out of his head. Then you come inside, he sniffs you, you pat his head, and he says in dog language, “Let’s play fetch.”
He’s amiable, but kind of sluggish. Toss him a piece of filet mignon, and it’ll hit him between the eyes and land on the floor. He’ll pause, sniff, gingerly take it between his front teeth, and let it roll back onto his tongue—as if it might be a little square of plastic explosives. Even as an old guy who’s seen as much as the next dog, he still hasn’t figured out the vacuum cleaner. He’s never been able to trust it.
I could name a dozen annoying habits Watson has (example: he fidgets and meanders constantly during his daily constitutional so that our backyard looks like its been aerated), but he’s such a faithful napping partner I hold nothing against him. When this dog dies, I’m going to be in trouble; that’s how close we are.
We have a routine. I say, “Okay, Watty, you want to go take a nap?”
I start up the stairs, and nine days of out ten, I hear Watson’s labored, clicking steps behind me. He’s nine and has torn both ACLs—we had one repaired, no cheap date.
I lie down on the bed, pat the other side, and say, “Come on, get your spot.”
He looks up at me as if to say, “You know I’m a gimp. Why do you do this to me?” But then he hops up, pirouettes, and plunks down.
From this point on, Watson has a menu of behaviors to choose from. If there are no disturbances, he’s asleep quickly.
As he settles in, he often devotes two or three minutes to making old mutt smacking noises with his fat wet mouth. It’s as if he’s tasting and re-tasting whatever he last ate. If he doesn’t let up, I say, “Watson, seriously!” and he stops, snorts, and puts his chin on his front paws.
A few days ago wife Kathy and daughter Elena took him for a walk on a warm afternoon, so it was a pooped Watson who joined me on the bed. He was panting so hard the bed rocked to his breathing’s fast, jerky rhythm. Eventually I opened my eyes. Not only was he being loud, but every ten seconds a drop of spit fell from his exercise-swollen tongue. I was okay with this. It’s hard to get mad at a senior citizen who’s just worked out.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to get annoyed when dog-walking traffic is brisk on Shenley Drive and Watson has to warn all passersby that he’s watching. He slides from the bed, sticks his snout against the screen, and hollers. All it takes to quiet him is a gentle “Watty, I don’t want to hear it,” but then he switches to short, throaty groans. He only relaxes again when everything’s clear.
Amazingly, most days I fall asleep. On wakeful afternoons, I remember how blessed it feels to rest next to a dog that channels Nigel Bruce.
Watson’s also my prayer partner, especially when I sit propped on the bed. Here we follow the siesta routine because to him sleep and prayer look a lot alike. I will admit that last week he came close to upsetting me. About fifteen minutes into a half-hour sit, my pal hopped up on the bed, looked at me with confused eyes, scratched the comforter to make a sweet spot, glanced at me again, then flopped.
Warning: if you have a twitchy gag reflex, you may want to pass on the rest of the story.
Thousand-one, thousand-two, thousand-three. Then the retching began.
(Coleman pets have had a long-standing policy of getting sick in aggravating places. First, never on tile; always on carpet. Second, if you value something, secure it. I once left a new Asus laptop open in my study, and a cat named Greasy Spot leapt onto my desk and had the mother of all appointments with loose bowels on the keyboard. The computer survived but was thereafter known as the craptop. And third, it is possible to hide hairballs. Years ago a cat left one in the toe of one of my moccasin slippers. Imagine how I discovered it.)
About that retching: “On the bed, Watson,” I said. “Really?”
Really. I won’t get detailed (you’re welcome), but it was a blonde, abundant, single unit.
I went downstairs to fetch wet rags and returned to find that—remember, you were warned—the puke was gone. I mean, gone. Watson was no longer confused; in fact, he seemed pleased.
I went through the motions, scrubbing away at where the incident had occurred, but, wow, the dog doesn’t even clean his food bowl that well. Glad it hadn’t happened on my pillow; I’d never have known.
Confession: I finished praying before taking the comforter to the basement. And I wasn’t angry at my buddy. What’s a little barking and barfing between loved ones? This afternoon he’ll be joining me again for blessed oblivion.