Thursday, November 5, 2009

Goodnight, Irene

Not so long ago, I waited at my backyard gate, leash in hand, in a sort of stand off with my Roma. She had the wide-legged stance that says "I'm not going anywhere with you," and she was giving me that look that poses the question, "And what exactly do I get out of the deal?" And without thinking, I said in an acid-drenched voice, "Let's go to the Dog Park, Irene." 

Irene was my maternal grandmother. Born in 1899, she managed to eke out an eighth-grade education before being shipped off to care for her younger half-brother while he attended a private high school. He went on to become a wealthy banker. She went on to become a widowed lunchroom lady. When she was in her twenties, she worked as a cashier in a Catskills restaurant where she met a handsome and charming cad. She ran off with him, and they married. It turned out, however, that he was already married, and his plan was to blackmail her family. He wanted money in return for not making a scandal. Her family, notoriously tight with money, had him arrested and there was a trial. My grandmother was so mortified that she left New York for Newark, New Jersey, where she worked her way through the Great Depression. She ultimately married a man she did not love, had my mother at age 40, and was widowed seven years later. By the time my mother was a preteen, my grandmother had established her reputation in the neighborhood as a cranky, beleaguered old woman. My mother's classmates called her "Mrs. Hitler."

Irene had succumbed to dementia by the time I was a teenager in the early 1980s. She moved in with my family, and for the next five years, she wandered our house day and night, not knowing where she was or who my parents and brother and I were. She was convinced that my younger brother was her own pampered brother, and she hated him. She ate the napkins her sandwiches were wrapped in, declared that cold lasagne was delicious cake, flushed twenty dollar bills down the toilet, soiled herself regularly, and muttered curses under breath all day long. Eventually, her heart gave out, and she died at age 85 in a nursing home on Mother's Day. Tomorrow would have been her 110th birthday.

So, I was, of course, shocked at myself for calling my own darling Roma by my grandmother's name. Roma is not senile, but she does share with my grandmother that unvarnished quality of old age—by which I mean that in old age, all the soft stuff is finally burnished away—the pretense of politeness and the things we do to show that we are civilized and socialized. Self-interest rules. When Irene heard that her daughter would have to undergo a surgical procedure over Thanksgiving one year, she did not put her hand out and say, "Honey, what can I do to make this easier for your and your family?" Instead, she clutched at her throat and said, "What about me? Who will take care of me?" My parents and I did. And we resented every minute. Who will take care of you, Roma? I will, you tough, old baby, and I'll do it gladly.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

We Do Not Heart Central Standard Time

I'm not alone, right? I mean summer just ended. I only just turned off the A/C and used a screwdriver and WD-40 to squeak open a couple of windows, and now it's dark by 5:30? Oh, the humanity!

Maybe elsewhere in the country people are snuggling in their sweaters and settling down with hot mugs of tea at 7 pm to watch their favorite prime time TV under cover of darkness, but I think I speak for all of us when I say that we here in Texas would like to GO OUTSIDE WITH OUR DOGS. We'd like to savor the kind of  weather that some lucky people get in July and August. We'd also like to get some exercise  and marvel at how we are not sweating or succumbing to heat stroke. We do not want to go inside and watch TV, where, by the way, I have already seen Christmas commercials. I guess that is the gift of global warming—a two-season year, summer and Christmas. As a child, I would have been all over that one. Somehow it lacks appeal now, and the dogs agree. 

See you at the Dog Park. Don't forget your flashlights and the blinky collars. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

To Justify the Ways of Dog to Man

A few weeks ago, my work required me to reread a short section of Milton's Paradise Lost. My objective was to explain it to high school students who are struggling readers—a daunting task. For those of you who can't remember senior English, Milton's epic poem tells the story of Satan's fall from grace and his temptation of Adam and Eve. It's a slog even for the most ardent admirer of English poetry. Milton's inverted syntax, lofty language, and now obscure allusions to biblical lore and ancient Greek and Roman myth makes the poem an elaborate wedding cake instead of a humble loaf of bread. To illustrate, here's the opening sentence:

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat, 
Sing, Heavenly Muse . . . 

Wha?? So you can see why I was less than confident of making this poem relevant to kids raised on Hillary Duff. I myself have never been a Milton fan. All the pro-Godness. He was a Puritan after all, and we all know that the Puritans were no fun. His first wife left him after a month. Later, after he went blind, his daughters by a second marriage did the heavy lifting of transcribing and revising his thousands of words. In women's lit classes, he was always the Bad Man. Still, I had to make some money, and so to Milton I turned. 

The part of the poem I had to work with was the opening section of Book 1, in which Milton tells the story of Satan's arrival in Hell after losing an thunderous battle with God for the throne of Heaven. He wakes up with his fellow rebel angel, Beelzebub, in a fiery lake. The two are as sore and grouchy as a pair of hungover frat boys on Ash Wednesday. After much boo-hooing, they haul themselves out of the lake and onto a prime piece of Hell real estate, where they plan their next move. Until they can get back to their proper places in heaven, they will spend their existence ruling in Hell, tormenting the human race, and being a pain in God's ass. It's a classic buddy picture, with two anti-hero schlemiels who think they can regain the upper hand. What they don't know and what Milton is perfectly clear about, though, is that God is totally in control here. It is only by his will that the two bad boys are even still around. He wants them to get their game on. He's waiting to see what they will do. 

As I read this section, I had a new insight. I imagined Satan and B-bub not as devils, but as dogs. Both Roma and Muzzy get their pouts on when I toss them out into the yard while I run the vacuum cleaner around the house or let in the furnace guy. They sit on the grass and look alternately disdainful and desperate to get back inside. (Roma, of course, is Satan, the plotter and instigator; Muzzy is the side-kick who, if truth be told, would prefer to be on God's good side than be a bad doggie.) So then I wondered which character I was. Was I God who booted badly behaving dogs out of Paradise, even for half an hour? In Milton's poem, God is the ultimate puppeteer. He allows Satan and the fallen angels to exist. They are his minions. In my case, however, even on the best of days, I don't have that kind of control over my dogs. Of course, they depend on me for food and love, but their paws are all over the remote control. I spend endless hours trying to figure out how best to serve them. I don't believe that God ever got out of bed in the middle of the night to let a dog outside to pee.

The answer is that I'm their Milton, and they are my muses. I'm the one who who documents the daily efforts of a couple of mutts to be true to their natures. I hope I'm more relevant than our man Milton, however. I also hope I have better hair. You be the judges.
Ta. z

Monday, November 2, 2009

Who Hearts Dog Park?

Well, we're back . . . Mere hours after signing off last month, I took the girls to Dog Park where we experienced a slightly surreal moment. It was a glorious Sunday morning, and the girls and I were the mutts among a pack of five Ridgebacks (the Super Models, the Role Models, and Lolo, who was celebrating a birthday) and two Border Collies (Joey and Coco). The air was cool and dry,  fresh and breezy. People were chatting amicably, in no hurry to go home. Then Erica called out, "Look!" From out of nowhere, a single, red, heart-shaped mylar balloon came drifting out of the sky. It cruised down to just above Doug's head—so let's say more than 6 feet off the ground. None of the dogs but Muzzy took note. She charged up to it and leaped up on her hind feet but could not reach its string. The breeze bounced the balloon along at this height for a few yards, and Muzzy continued to follow it across the field. Then, an updraft suddenly caught it and, within half a minute, it became a tiny dot high in the sky, leaving Dog Park far behind. 

There was a collective moment of contemplation, and then came the comments. One person called out, "Love has arrived!" Someone else cried, "Someone just lost their love!" And someone else, probably Doug, said, "I hate those stupid balloons. They're so bad for the environment!" 

All of which is just to say that Dog Park still continues to yield surprises and bring people together, even if only to disagree. 

For those of you who read this blog entry, I appreciate your attention and interest. I am thinking, though, of ways to change the focus of the blog a little. Now that the days are shorter, and the ground is too damp for sitting on, there are fewer lingering conversations and newsworthy events to report. I'd like to write more specifically about the books and articles I read and the dogs I live with. So we'll see where this takes us. As always, Muzzy and Roma and I hope to see you at the Dog Park.