Friday, February 5, 2010

Talking Trash

It's trash day today, and I've been doing some major house cleaning lately, inspired by having too much time on my hands—and also the lurking fear that I may have to sell my house in order to survive the recession. But I've also recently started reading Garbage Land  by Elizabeth Royce (Back Bay Books, 2005), which chronicles the author's quest to follow her trash from her NYC porch to its final resting spots–dumps and landfills and incinerators around the country. According to Royce, Americans throw out per person 4.5 pounds of trash per day. Per person! Per day! Yikes!

So yesterday, as I prepared the trash for the san man, I examined my garbage pretty carefully. I did fill up the can, but most of it was light but bulky. I had thrown out the stuffing in Muzzy's old bed, which had gotten wadded down and was, quite frankly, pretty whiffy and unwashable. Otherwise, the trash content was normal, consisting of two empty soy milk containers, used tissues (cedar season is almost over!), and fines—a term that Royce and other sanitation students use to describe the wisps of hairs and lints and floss and other tiny items that settle on the bottom of the trash can. Oh, and dog poop. That's obviously not part of my fines. In fact, poop is how my weekly trash gets serious. Without having a scale to measure, I'd say that my household produces at least three pounds of poop a week—even with just one dog (Muzzy is a hearty producer). (Note: That poundage does not include the poop I scoop and throw away at city parks.) I seriously think if I did not have a dog, I would not even need weekly trash pick up—thanks to the City's recycling program and the compost pile in my backyard.

Dog waste is a topic that Royce does not cover in her book—because it's all about her, and she has a kid but no pets—but an online article I found this morning cites the U.S. Department of Agriculture statistic that "the average dog" in this country produces 274 pounds of waste per year. (That's three-quarters of a pound every day, or 5.4 pounds a week.) This number includes not only poop, as far as I could tell, but also the packaging for food, meds, and grooming products and toys. So I thought about that statistic. I rarely give my dogs baths, but both Roma and Muzzy needed a good bit of medicine this fall. Also, Muzzy does require balls and chew toys. She could easily go through two Nylabones a week, but since she may only chew the ends, the whole thing essentially ends up in the garbage can. I do my best to buy products that do not come excessively wrapped in plastic. And I make sure to recycle the cardboard, cellphane, and paper bits. Again, without having a scale, I'm assuming that I do better than the national average of waste, but that may be wishful thinking.

Still, what is a girl with a dog or two supposed to do? I can't tell the dogs not to poop. Another source I glanced at suggested that one way to keep dog poop out of the solid waste stream would be to flush it down the toilet. I am not even going to consider that option. Most sources suggested that really, the best thing for people, dogs, and the environment, is to bag and toss poop into proper trash receptacles. I do that; you do that; we all do that. So, I am not going to worry about this one any more today. Really, my dog's poop is much more easily disposed of than the old, sucky pressboard desk, a holdover from my post-grad school days, that shattered when I tried to move it yesterday. Now I have a ton of pressboard rubble, the pieces of which are too big for my trash can. I thought about dumping them in Dog Park dumpsters under cover of night, but that would be wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong! Instead, Muzzy and I will wait patiently for Big Trash day. Then I'll put the junk on the curb, and all the neighborhood boy dogs can walk by and pee on it—which is another way to get dog waste to the dump.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Literary Dog: A Gothic Tail

A recent New Yorker article profiled the British writer Neil Gaiman, who specializes in creepy gothic tales and graphic novels for tweens of all ages. The article made a big deal of his children's book Coraline (Harper Trophy, 2002), which, a friend told me, has a pretty high creep-out factor. So I thought it would make for good reading on a cold, dreary, rainy night.  The story goes like this: a girl, an only child of unengaged parents, moves to an old house in an English country town. The parlor contains a locked door that opens onto a brick wall. Naturally,  the doorway is magical, and Coraline wanders through it to an alternate universe, where her "other" parents and neighbors live. They are exactly the same as her real parents and neighbors, except that they have buttons for eyes. The "other" mother appears at first to be far more nurturing and imaginative (and a better cook) than Coraline's real mum, and the girl is tempted to stay in the alternate world, but she decides not to. In revenge, the other mother kidnaps Coraline's real parents, and Coraline's challenge is to rescue them and escape from eternal bondage. Sheesh. The stakes are high.

There are dogs in the book, but it is the cat who helps save the day. It, like Coraline, is able to travel between the two worlds—although it can only talk in one of them, thank goodness. The dogs, as you might expect in a book in which a cat is the hero, come off as rather dumb and easily entertained. Here is a bit from a scene in the alternate world. Coraline has found her way to an old theater run by her "other" neighbors, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. She is ushered to her seat by a gruff Scottie dog with a flashlight in his mouth. All the other theater-goers, it turns out, are dogs who express their appreciation of events onstage (Coraline has just participated in a knife-throwing demonstration) by thwacking their tails against the velvet seats.

    Miss Spink gave Coraline a very small box of chocolates and thanked her for being such a good sport. Coraline went back to her seat. 
    "You were very good," said the little dog. 
    "Thank you," said Coraline.
    Miss Forcible and Miss Spink began juggling with huge wooden clubs. Coraline opened the box of chocolates. The dog looked at them longingly.
    "Would you like one?" she asked the little dog.
    "Yes, please," whispered the dog. "Only not the toffee ones. They make me drool."
    "I thought chocolates weren't very good for dogs," she said, remembering something Miss Forcible had told her.
   "Maybe where you come from," whispered the little dog. "Here, that's all we eat."
    Coraline couldn't see what the chocolates were, in the dark. She took an experimental bite of one which turned out to be coconut. She gave it to the dog.
    "Thank you," said the dog. 
    "You're welcome," said Coraline. 
     —from Coraline, pp. 42-43

Of course, dogs may only eat chocolate and say "thank you" in an alternate reality, but they do get to sit on the furniture wherever they are in the space-time continuum.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ashes to Ashes

On Tuesday, I opened my front door to find on  my porch a small unmarked cardboard box that contained the ashes of my Roma. They were carefully sealed in plastic and then wrapped a gold mesh bag, which was in turn tied with a gold ribbon. In the box with the ashes were a condolence card from the crematorium and a statement that verifies the ashes are hers. Of course they are. I knew instinctively they were, even though they look like a 1-pound bag of corn meal from the bulk section of Wheatsville.  I cradled the bag in my hands for a moment. Of course they are hers. They contain the weight of her wisdom.

I confess that I feel relieved to have her back. For the last week, I have been bereft, unanchored without her, without knowing exactly where she was. To be able to touch some part of her again is comforting, even though what I'm holding is made up almost entirely of the old bones and teeth that gave her such trouble at the end of her life.

Another thing that satisfies is knowing how the story of Roma ended. It was an awesome responsibility to care for her, and too often I worried about the worst things that could happen. So it is with satisfaction that I can say, she had a long and interesting life, and it ended as well as it could, when she was fourteen and four months old. I can say now that, although she once ran across Highway 360, she was never hit by a car. And although she once got skunked, she was never bitten by a snake. Although she once fell through the ice on a pond in Massachusetts, she never was without a home, a bed, a full food bowl, and a basket full of toys she ignored, not while she was my dog. I am satisfied with the story of Roma and the role I played in helping to write its pages. She was a dear and wise old thing, stubborn and funny, and I loved her. End of story.

Pats to all your dogs.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cloudy Days and Tuesdays

I believe that I speak for everyone when I exclaim, "What is up with this weather?!" I thought the whole point of suffering through infernal summers was that we could call our Yankee relatives in February and brag about how we are puttering around in shorts and flip-flops with pale, furry legs, sipping iced tea and planning our winter gardens.

I just wish the lakes would fill up so that we could stop feeling like we need the rain and cloudy days. I grow weary of muddy paw marks on my surfaces (floors, sofas, pant legs) and the agonized groan of worn-out wipers dragging themselves across a rain-smeared windshield. Look, I'd even make a deal. The rain can stay, but can the temps crawl up about 10 degrees. Sixty-five. That was a great year and an acceptable temperature.

Thanks for listening. I gotta go walk a dog in the wet.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Dog Park: A Place We Call Home

I started to read an interesting article in the NY Times Magazine yesterday—"Is There an Ecological Unconscious." It explores the idea that our brains are hardwired to love and protect the place where we live and have roots. "Heart's ease" is the term the writer discusses with Glenn Albrecht, an eco-activist who has spent nearly a decade fighting the incursion of coal mining into the farms and ranch lands of southeastern Australia. Here's Albrecht's definition of the concept:

"People have hearts ease when they're on their own country. If you force them off that country, if you take them away from their land, they feel the loss of heart's ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their own life."

The article then discusses another term that Albrecht uses to describe the feeling of suffering experienced when one is displaced from home and loses one's heart's ease. The term is solastalgia, derived from the Latin solacium , which means comfort, and -algia-, the Greek root for pain. Albrecht invented it to describe feelings experienced by displaced people, such as Native Americans and refugees from natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.  He says that solastalgia is

" . . . the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault. . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at 'home.'"

These two passages really struck me—so much so that I stopped reading the article to think about them. I grew up in New Jersey, and, when I was married, I lived in the Midwest and in New England. And I have been lucky enough to travel throughout Europe. Yet, for reasons that are unfathomable, Austin is the one place where I feel my heart's ease. Dog Park, too, inspires that feeling, too. It's just a big patch of dirt. I could walk my dog at Town Lake or Red Bud Isle, but I don't—because Dog Park is The Place. It's where we go. And I think that a lot of us Parkers feel heart's ease there, or we wouldn't keep going in all weather and at risk of getting tickets.

Which brings me to another point of comparison. The current campaign by Animal Control makes me feel solastalgic. Do you feel it, too? We walk at Dog Park anyway but are alert, not at ease at all. We now have to be vigilant. We feel infringed upon by the threat, if not the presence, of Animal Control and the Crazy Guy. We are all fully aware that our leashless dog walking is against City code, and yet we feel a bit violated and under siege. It suggests, really, how strong—and irrational—our sense of place can be.