Saturday, July 10, 2010

Welcome to Bizarro World

I rarely go to Dog Park in the morning because I have a long-standing aversion to several people who frequent the morning shift. I call them, collectively, The Coven. A trio of queen bees, they scare the crap out of me. I have been on their bad side for the better part of 7 years for objecting to one of their dogs harassing my Roma. Keeping track of these *lovely women* on my internal radar is enough work to ruin a morning's walk. Who needs the grief?

But today Muzzy definitely needed a morning run, so we went to Park. And after eluding the woman who teases me for wearing boots when it's not raining, Muzzy and I managed to complete almost an entire loop when there she was: the #1 member of the Coven,  whom I'll call Nyoo Yawk N. NYN is notorious at Dog Park for a voice like a fog horn that broadcasts opinions about everything, but a favorite topic is the only way to raise, train, and walk a dog, i.e., her way. Nothing grills a Texan, even a non-native one, like a loud-mouthed New Yorker, and most people stay out of her way. But today she had no minions to lecture, and so I had no warning until she was on top of me and the Muzz. I tried to keep my head down, but I was in her cross hairs. Nyoo Yawk N. stopped me, pointed across the field, and then peppered me with questions like a wise guy in an old RKO gangster picture: "Are you parked over there? Are you going to your car? Do you know that woman in that car? Whose dog is that? Do you know what it did?"

I could feel only the blood pounding in my ears and the laboring of my breath. Instead of formulating answers to her questions, my eyes darted in search of an exit. I managed to stammer out answers, but they really were beside the point. NYN. had launched into a monologue about how the woman across the field had let her dog out of her car, and it proceeded first to terrorize NYN's own small dogs before it went out into the field and took a dump, which the woman did not pick up. NYN was offended in every possible way. She said, "And I waved my arms and yelled, 'Helloooo! Your dog is pooping over here,' but the woman didn't care! She just sat there in her car, and I think that is so wrong, people letting their dogs out while sitting in their cars. I mean it's just not a good thing, and the people who work here hate us because we let our dogs poop in the field without picking it up." She paused for the merest breath and then said, "So if you want to over there and talk to her about it, that would be a good idea."

I have become a deeply suspicious person in recent months. I trust no one, least of all NYN, and I kept waiting for the sucker punch. I kept expecting to hear the whistling of the anvil as it fell from the sky onto my head. And then the world tilted on its axis a little as I understood, "She doesn't remember who I am." And then came the realization that NYN was treating me as an ally. I was stunned, stupefied, but I saw my out. "Yes," I said firmly, clenching Muzzy's leash purposefully in my hand. "Yes, I will talk to her right now." I grabbed Muzzy and strode forward. As I walked away, NYN continued to appeal to me, "Because it's just not right. We need to keep this park clean for everyone."

What had just happened? Had I fallen into Bizarro world? Was I walking in Alternate Reality Dog Park? Had the world become a place where NYN makes sense? Where her bellowed entreaties to keep Texas beautiful actually fall on deaf ears? Where people ignore her without retribution? Where NYN will make an appeal to me, a lowly outcast, to set things straight?  I blinked, but the sky above me was still blue, and the cicadas still sang their songs in the grass.

I went back to my car, and on seeing the offending woman and her dog up close, I realized that I knew them slightly. The dog is a sweetheart—frisky but distant, and the woman, who was just now extricating herself from her front seat, has a bum hip or knee that forces her to rely on a cane to inch her way around the trail. I said good morning. We exchanged pleasantries, but I said nothing about the dog's poop. I had run out of bags myself and thought that I'd simply put things right later by picking up an extra load when I came back in the evening. It would be my own quiet form of justice.

As I put the car in reverse, I saw Nyoo Yawk N. approach the parking lot. She seemed to hang back and watch the other woman hobble into the Park with her dog. And I thought that NYN looked like one of those giant Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade balloons—only half deflated, with her big head drooping on the fabric stem of a neck, her mouth puckered and downturned, her arms not outstretched but sagging in what looked like defeat. Welcome to Bizarro World. I think I kind of like it. -z

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Old-New Routines

Every time I come back from a vacation, I vow to make regular life more vacation-like. So this week, Muzzy and I have been trying to have more adventures. Yesterday, we went with a longtime friend and fellow freelancer and her two small dogs to the Greenbelt. Muzzy did not swim, but she got plenty wet and afterwards, at a dog-friendly restaurant in South Austin, she remained in down position for the entire meal, despite frantic waitresses bearing trays laden with hot food and crazed kids pushing toy dump trucks around her. Well done, Muzzy! I could not have been more proud if she'd recited the Pledge of Allegiance from memory.

Today we went to Turkey Creek. News flash: The water is still running.

We'd gotten out of the habit of driving out to Turkey Creek, although it was a favorite spot. But the creek dried up even before the drought, and, without water, there's no point even going. Then one summer, I was sick. The next summer, Roma couldn't handle the full 2.5 mile loop or the triple digit temperatures. But Muzzy and I went out today, despite temps in the upper 90s. It was pretty swell.

We had the place to ourselves. The air was thick with the chhrrr chrrr of cicadas and the tang of cedar. Many of the trees are dead but still standing, creating a lacy canopy above our heads that filtered out the hot afternoon sun. The water was not as high as it was this spring, but it still bubbled and churned. And it felt cool and refreshing, not like the tepid bathwater at the Greenbelt. One thing I kind of love about Texas summer is how the temperature outside your skin can be nearly the same as on the inside. It's such a strange sensation to walk on hot, humid days, as if you are swimming through the air, air that is like an extension of yourself. We didn't do the whole loop. We wanted to pace ourselves. Next time, we'll go a little earlier in the day and make the whole loop. You are welcome to join us.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Dogs from My Past

Meet Coffeecake. He was a redheaded dachshund beloved my mother. Lore has it that he was the runt of his litter, small enough to fit into my tiny mother's raincoat pocket in 1962 or so. He was a well established princeling by the time I came along several years later. Spoiled by my mother, Coffeecake hated my father. Not surprisingly, my father hated him back. (A WWII veteran who was the son of a WWI vet, my father had a thing about bossy Germans, including, or especially, those in his own mother's family.) I wasn't so keen on him either, but it seemed terribly important that I get him to like me. At best, he tolerated me. He climbed over me when I lay on the floor reading comics. He appeared in every birthday photo, usually with his "wurst" end facing the camera.

I used to toss him dry Cheerios from my bowl, as I stood in front of the television in the den, bouncing my knees to the music on the Jack LaLanne show. That seemed like a way to bond, until the time that I crawled under the sofa after him to proffer a piece of cereal. He bit me on the nose. He also bit my mother's friend, Marlene, on Christmas Day. In his defense, she had had several whiskey sours and was trying to smooch on him. I'd have bitten Marlene, too. She smelled like cats. He also bit my grandmother while she was babysitting me. The ambulance came. In all the drama, nobody remembered where I was. I watched everything from the kitchen doorway. This little episode did little to thaw the Cold-War-like relations between my grandmother and her only daughter-in-law. They didn't reach detente until well after the Berlin Wall came down.

Obviously, Coffeecake, despite his delicious name, was not a likable or sweet dog. In his later years, he was fat and ugly. Unfixed and covered in warts, he trotted around the house leaving behind an unmistakeable musky odor. One form of torture my brother and I perfected was to force each other's face into the dog's pillow, a green-tassled sofa cushion that was waxy and pungent from years of use. Ultimately, like many of my unpleasant relatives, he lived a very long time. He was fifteen or sixteen when he died while napping on a summer afternoon in the late 1970s. I remember only feeling sad for a matter of minutes. We had another dog, Sam, who was a big lug of a Labrador. My brother and I liked him much better than Coffeecake, even though he bit us, too. In both cases, we got yelled at for bothering the dog. No mollycoddlying for us. It's a wonder we survived.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fence Me In; Don't Tie Me Up

Over the July 4th weekend, I tried to stop occasionally and reflect on independence. I am grateful for the independence I enjoy every day. I've been an adult for a long time now (chronologically anyway) and still every day I am thrilled at the fact that I get to make my own choices, that I can drive a car wherever and whenever I want, that I can own my own home, and that I can work my own hours and at whatever jobs I choose to take. I don't have a husband, children, a boss, or a landlord. I am, however, enthralled to a dog. But even that's a choice, too, as you all know from your own experiences. So, I have a lot to celebrate.

So I was kind of intrigued when I heard on KUT news that a local woman was observing the holiday by chaining herself to a tree in a city park. Her point was to bring awareness to the plight of dogs that spend their entire lives chained to an object, something that is now illegal but still all too common in Austin.

The woman is Bobbie Oliver, and she is a retired Austin police commander. Her plan on the Fourth was to spend 17 hours chained to a tree in Garrison Park. She and about 80 other people around the nation were participating in a one-day event they were calling Chain Off. Here's what Oliver told KUT:
“I’m out here all day because I want to get a little taste of what it’s like to be on the end of a chain,” said Oliver. “And it’s just hard to understand unless you’ve felt the boredom and the complete powerlessness of it.”
The report mentioned that she had generated a little interest from people passing by. At least one person was concerned about her mental health and called the police. Others kept their distance. I was pretty impressed. My initial reaction to the kind of statement Ms. Oliver was making is to dismiss. I am liberal in my politics but suspicious of public protests, at least those that are not about crowds of people chanting and holding signs, where there is some safety and power in numbers. I am never quite convinced that stunts that involve chaining oneself to something are solely about drawing attention to a cause. But when a former officer of the law makes the commitment to do something that is so uncomfortable and also painful to contemplate, I had to rethink my stance. I hope others paid attention, too.

Which brings me to the local ordinance that is at the heart of Oliver's protest. A while back, I complained that I was not allowed to leash Muzzy outside my branch library. I thought that the problem was specific to the library, that dog-unfriendly people had complained, but no. The ordinance that is supposed to protect dogs from spending a lifetime chained to a car on blocks also prevents us from tying our dogs outside a building while we run in to get beer or a library book.

The ordinance was amended in June of 2007 to remove all language that once allowed unsupervised chaining of dogs in Austin. Here's Part 3, Section 3-4-2 (Restraint Requirements For Dogs on Private Property:
"(A) . . . a person may not restrain a dog with a chain or tether unless the person is holding the chain or tether." 
The following is shown as crossed out:
"(A person may not restrain a dog by a fixed point chain or tether for more than eight hours in a 24-hour day unless the chain or tether is at least 10 feet long, has swivels at each end, and is attached to a pulley or trolley mounted cable that is mounted no more than seven feet above ground level.)" 
Other parts of the ordinance outline the basic requirements for secure enclosure of a dog, none of which involves tethering or chaining. You can read the full text of the revised ordinance here.

Of course, this is a non-issue for readers of this blog, who spend hours of their day sweating and swatting mosquitos and gnats at Dog Park while their dogs romp freely (and, yes, illegally) in the burr-laden fields, but it is always important to remember that not every person or every dog gets to enjoy the independence he or she deserves.

Thanks for reading. -z