Wednesday, March 24, 2010
When I was a teenager, I saw National Lampoon's Vacation on cable after it had already shown in theaters and was on VHS. A good thing, too, because as soon as we saw it, my brother and I would check that thing out from Blockbusters and rewind it countless times to relive the funniest scenes, commit dialogue to memory, catch little throw-away moments we'd never noticed before. Seeing Vacation was like watching a family trip of ours on video, just tweaked a little, with a funnier cast and more exaggerated shenanigans. No, my father never pursued an inexplicably flirtatious blonde in a convertible across the country, and no one's great aunt passed into the great unknown in the back seat of the family truckster, but we had our own mishaps, fueled by the same steadfast pursuit of having an enriching time, no matter if it killed us. This was my father's obsession, and the way he approached our vacations, with a dogged, teeth-gritting, white-knuckled determination, was something to behold. From the back seat of our station wagon, littered with awkwardly-folded maps and dog-eared travel guides, my brother and I saw the roads and highways rolling out from our starting point in Chicago's North Shore as captives and co-conspirators.
The earliest road trip I remember was when we went to the Dakotas, out to see Mount Rushmore and the Corn Palace among other things that didn't exactly rock my seven-year-old world. It was on this trip when my father first let us know that he was the type of traveler who would only stop for meals or refueling. There were miles that needed to be gulped up between Point A and Point B, and there was nothing that would slow him down. Not even carsickness among children accustomed to a very flat terrain. When my brother first warned as we rolled over another hill that he was starting to feel sick. my parents ignored him. When he reiterated it with more conviction, my mother turned around and saw his poor, green face, hands clutching his stomach, full of Grape Crush and potato chips. My father still would not stop. I watched in horror as she handed my brother an empty cup just in time. One would think that even a man possessed would pull over to dispose of the foul cup. Nope. My brother had to throw it out the window on the highway as my father tightened his fingers on the steering wheel. The cup's contents streaked all along the side of the car and I distinctly remember my grimacing father washing it off on one of his rare impromptu gas station stops. "Serves him right," my mother sighed. My brother groaned. I giggled.
There were other vacations together. One that most sticks out in my memory is the trip to Florida as a teenager. Again, my father was a maniac behind the wheel. He started to see himself as the noble captain of a doomed ship and his passengers, particularly his eye-rolling, smart-mouthed daughter, as his mutinous charges. My desire to return to school after winter break with the telltale sign of a warm weather sojourn - a tan, acquired through luxurious amounts of beach time - sharply collided with my father's insistence on day trips of tromping through swamps and kitschy museums. I can hear my father's voice, hectoring me as "insolent!" and " an ingrate!" as I turned up the volume on my Walkman from the back seat to this day. My brother spurred me on, amused by my reliably sarcastic ripostes and eager to be on my father's relative good side. My mother read her magazines. This was our last trip together as a family. I think we were all thinking the same thing as we boarded the plane back for Chicago: never again.
So now my family is about to embark on a little vacation of our own, just a long weekend away but all that we can manage time-wise. Despite some of these misadventures from the past, I am an enthusiastic traveller. So is my husband and it appears that my son inherited the bug, too. His first road trip was at three weeks of age, when he took in parts of the country from a backwards facing car seat; his memory of this time could perhaps be retrieved with the aid of regression therapy though mine is crystal clear, of the midnight meanderings through the hotel lobby, trying to soothe the alien newborn when my breasts weren't cutting it. So we wandered and shuffled and took escalators up and down, his giant eyes riveted by the bright lights, the shifting shapes. Did this plant a seed that grows over a lifetime of wanting to always absorb new sights, take in new surroundings? His favorite first toy I got him, other than Toby, his dog on wheels, was the shiny little red suitcase, also on wheels. I picked it out for him on a thrift store whim when he was two. He took to that little suitcase from the moment he first saw it. He'd fill it with clothes and books and a stuffed animal or two, then he'd wander around the house, pulling it behind him like a little jet-setter.
After a long traveling dry spell - other than the stray weekend here or there - I am hopeful that the embargo is over and we will be getting back out there again, exploring oceans and cities and mountains and cute little towns all over the darn place. I've got a pretty serious case of wanderlust. Despite those ill-fated family vacations of years ago, there is little I love more than throwing some packed bags in the car and just driving away. This weekend, I get to do it again.
I'm very grateful.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
On anger and grief...
Back when I first came into this life, not my actual birth but my life as a vegan activist, I immersed myself in learning about the various ways in which people torture and kill all those beings unfortunate enough to not have been born in human form. I had to learn about vivisection, of course, in fact, it was the first thing I learned about after becoming a vegetarian by way of a poster up in my school's art building. Just down the pipeline, there was dog-fighting and puppy mills, circuses and zoos. Oh, and then rodeos, horse carriages, canned hunts, petting zoos. There was also that monumental wall I slammed into when I tried to grasp the enormity of factory farming. I read pamphlet after article after book, watched videos until I wanted to remove my own horrified eyes with a grapefruit spoon. Every week, more videos would arrive in the mail. I watched undercover footage of elephant abuse that disturbed me so profoundly - John turned off the TV when I sobbed on the floor more gutturally than either of us ever knew possible - and I truly believe I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from seeing it, a part of my innocence permanently removed like an appendix. I told myself that if the animals had to endure these traumas, I could at least learn about them, bear witness to them, speak about them. Anything that I went through in the process was nothing compared to what they faced.
All around my work office, there were petitions I chased down my coworkers to sign, postcards about the upcoming anti-fur march, assertive buttons in a little silver bowl, books and DVDs lining my shelves, waiting to be lent out. I commandeered the office printer and ran that thing until my corneas felt like they would pop out of my head. I went to meeting after meeting in dark church basements, protest after protest until everything ran together like a single muddy watercolor. My total immersion into the world of brutality against animals understandably threatened my natural optimism. The more I read and saw and protested, the angrier I became. How could people be so stupid, so vain, so selfish? This phase of being very angry about the world didn't last long, maybe a year at most: I find people to be just too interesting to shut them out completely. Plus, the person I was becoming just wasn't me. When I emerged from under this dark cloud, I left my preoccupation behind. I decided that unless I was going to run off and join a separatist vegan commune, for the sake of my sanity and quality of life, I could no longer fill my mind with devastating statistics and a steady diet of so much tragic knowledge. Totally steeping in the misery others create was wrecking my life and counter-productive to me being able to attract more people to cruelty-free living. I still value my knowledge and, yes, my outrage, but I just can't pickle myself in it any longer.
Last week I got a taste of it again after a long time away. I was doing research for an article I'm writing about the fur industry. I felt it burbling up again as I held my hand over the gruesome pictures of bloody, skinned corpses, read about a thousand stomach-clenching paragraphs. That familiar cloud rose again. I felt myself mentally spreading cement between bricks, choking out the rest of the world again. I had the benefit of perspective this time, though. I noticed what was happening and I was able to get a grip. Having the good sense to throw out a few lifelines to my compassionate friends helped quite a lot. At times, it was almost as though I were observing someone else go through it. I am able to see now that this rage people accuse animal advocates of having is real: many of us are incredibly angry and justifiably so. Scratch the surface of that white-hot anger, though, and I bet you more times than not, it is there in order to hold back the ocean of sorrow and grief that threatens to sweep us away. Being angry means that you are still alive, you are still fighting, your fuming little heart is still pumping. Being acutely sad means that you feel as if you swallowed a rain cloud and you are slowly drowning internally. Immersing myself again in the world of violence, that was how I felt: like I was slowly drowning.
This all leads me to a great quote I read last week, the one that really helped to pull me out of the sticky morass. (Sometimes those inspiring quotes really do have legs.) This is from Wayne Dyer: "Everything you are against weakens you. Everything you are for empowers you." I read it and my spirit felt lighter, the wisdom of those words trickled through me and for the first time in days, I smiled again. I released my grip on the pain and the anger I'd been lugging around (because I felt like I needed them, I needed something to hold onto) and I noticed that the sun was out, that the squirrel who visits daily was on our back porch again. Sometimes it's intoxicating, that righteous rage, that forceful rejection: it can be energizing and make you feel all tingly. But it's fleeting and when you are just running on the fumes of it, you feel depleted, lost, hopeless, totally isolated in an increasingly hostile, stupid world. Anger is a step up from depression because it can be motivating and bring some fire back into you. Anger is a natural, utterly sane response to this unhinged world. It simply is. Using that anger, though, as a springboard to catapult me toward the life I want to create - rather than toward the ugliness I abhor so I can continue to fruitlessly pummel my fists against it - is the objective. When I am inspired by and grounded in the passion for what I love, I have endless vitality, the creative flow is so undeniably moving, the pieces just seem to snap into place so effortlessly. Comparing this to when I am solely fueled by anger: well, when I am moving toward and inspired by what I am for, I am in the driver's seat rather than just a passenger. It becomes a reciprocal relationship then, rather than one-sided, when I am both feeding and actually being nourished by the things in life that inspire me. I think this is true for all of us.
What a relief it is to throw off the burden of this pain and to know that dwelling in it is simply not necessary. This releasing of the grief and anger doesn't make us less compassionate, less knowledgeable, less concerned: I think that sometimes we hold onto it because we don't know who we'd be without it, like we'll fly away like dry leaves. In truth, when you move towards what you are for rather than what you are against, you have permission to be wildly, passionately but peacefully you. Living as an example of someone who is moving toward and motivated by what she loves is incredibly inspiring and liberating to others. And this is what is going to change the world.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Chicago and me...
I am wondering today what it means to be a true Chicagoan. Does it mean that the sound of the garbage truck outside on Monday morning - lifting, roughly dropping plastic garbage cans, the slow acceleration and loud, squeaking brakes - is ingrained? Does it mean that if someone woke you up at three in the morning and shouted, "Quick! What train do I take to get to Midway?" you'd be able to immediately respond, "Orange line," before falling back asleep? Does being a true Chicagoan mean that the famous, proud skyline makes you puff your chest out occasionally, that you can live with the disgustingly dirty snow by this time every March? I grew up in the northern suburbs but I was born in Chicago and spent my first two years in an apartment on Damen Avenue.
Surprisingly, I remember several things about our life on Damen. I remember looking out from the perspective of my crib, seeing through the bars, when my brother woke up, crying, in the middle of the night. I remember the building janitor, a tired-looking older man in a grey uniform, hair slicked back, standing in our doorway, talking to my mother. I remember my mother carrying me down a warm street when a random woman with horn-rimmed glasses stopping to say hello to me, the baby, a wide smile on her face, gushing at me. I remember her face up against the sky, clouds behind her, her dark hair in a bouffant, her joyful expression, plain as day, and I remember my mother smiling back at her. Another time, or perhaps on this same walk, I remember my mother carrying me down the street and pointing up at a traffic light: what's that? "Light." My mother smiled, clearly proud. Light was my first word. The city was the backdrop of that moment with my mother and so many others, some things that seemed so unremarkable even at the time that I can't understand why they stuck with me. I also remember when we moved from Damen: my parents standing among moving boxes and disorder, my brother climbing into an empty box and my father reaching down to pull him out.
My family was part of the "white flight" pattern out to the suburbs when my parents made the first of several very smart real estate moves. Though the leafy cul-de-sac road I grew up on seemed like world's apart from our Damen Avenue neighborhood, Chicago cast a very wide shadow, informing our sense of place even when wide suburban lawns and perfect trees to climb surrounded us.
My grandparents still lived in the city, first in the three-flat they owned in Rogers Park (for some reason, my mind mostly retains the kitchen with my grandmother's tea kettle whistling, the postage-stamp back yard and the washing machine in the basement) and then in a condo on Sheridan Road, right across the street from the lake. The place on Sheridan Road is what I remember most: the train down there (my mother didn't drive until she was thirty and never liked driving in the city), the short walk from the Thorndale stop, the apartment buildings everywhere. Edgewater, the neighborhood where my grandparents lived, was referred to as "changing," in the ambiguous parlance of the day, which meant that Chicago's notoriously segregated streets were becoming less so all around them. With that, traditions were becoming frayed and less rigid. In my grandmother's neighborhood of the 1970s, the bakery she had been going to since the 1940s, owned by that sad-eyed German widower with the extravagant window displays, was getting elbowed out by the Caribbean bakery on Howard, the grocery store with the full-service baked goods at lower prices, the terrifying carob-and-almond clusters at the local natural foods shop. I came of age in this more multicultural era, and especially as the town I grew up in was so monotonously white bread, it was a thrilling thing to see. My mother, who grew up in a very segregated, sheltered time and was genuinely afraid of anything non-white or outside of the mainstream, would hustle me along down the street, pulling on my arm as I stared at the Korean dolls in the windows, the hippies with their hands in one another's back pockets slouching under shop awnings. The melting pot of loud, accented voices rising to be heard and intriguing smells and strange music was everywhere, or so it seemed, as soon as we stepped off the train.
We would walk across the street in the summer at my grandparents to run around the beach at Lake Michigan. There was a rickety playground, seagulls and craggy rocks at one beach; smooth, clean sand, the scent of coconut oil and an almost tropical feeling at the other, two blocks away. We could and often did spend the whole day there in the summer; my brother and I would look for starfish that never arrived and wayward mermaids along the shore, and we'd torment my grandmother by going out too far for her comfort into the lake. She'd watch us from the beach, waving her arms ("Come back!") and we'd both go insane giggling as we bobbed around in the waves. We'd make friends for the day, as children do, with shockingly mature city kids who went to the beach without any grown ups around. They wore house keys on loose cords as around their necks. I idolized the city kids, wild as wolves.
As I grew up, Chicago became even more alluring. My grandfather would take us at least couple times every summer to Maxwell Street (he'd buy pocket radios and tube socks from the vendors and occasionally I'd score some Bonnie Bell lip balm) and his favorite deli (Manny's, the one Barack Obama went to during his presidential campaign) where all the old men - and they were all old men - would tell stories in Yiddish and eat cabbage soup with crumbled Saltines on top. Two men had blurry tattoos on their forearms; my grandfather told me they were remnants from Auschwitz. I tried not to stare. The city was where everything collided: the enormous, gleaming skyscrapers and the sawdust-smelling hardware stores with the shop owners sweeping in front; the sleek, chic shoppers gliding by on impossible heels along Michigan Avenue and old ladies with babushkas pushing their carts down Argyle Street. I loved every inch of what I saw and I run home to draw sketches of what my first apartment would look like: a beautiful, ivy-covered courtyard building a bench in the middle.
When I got my driver's license at sixteen, my friends and I would sneak my mother's station wagon to Oak Street Beach or Rush Street as much as we could. I practiced smoking Marlboro Lights but it never took and for the last couple of years of high school, my friends and I were doggedly determined to get into bars only to have our fake IDs openly mocked by the bouncers most of the time, but occasionally they'd let us in with a subtle nod. Gaining entry to the occasional bar with lax standards was like getting into a secret club: we felt giddy with being able to play at being grown ups, if only for an hour or two. I drank screwdrivers not because I liked them, but because I hated beer (still do) and I didn't know any other drinks. One time we parked in a grocery store lot in an attempt to get out of finding a meter and we thought we were pretty slick until we were walking back to the lot at the end of the night and saw my mother's car on the back of a tow truck. We chased down the street after the tow truck, screaming and waving our arms - it was futile, of course - but we managed to cobble together the tow fee among everyone there. My parents never did find out. The subterranean tow lot was like a purgatory where Gollum lived.
Part of Chicago's appeal was its dangerous edge. I grew up during the Tylenol cyanide murders; the horrifying, decomposing evidence discovered in John Wayne Gacy's suburban crawl space. There were gangs and violence; it also wasn't too far removed from the days of mobsters in sooty black suits running the show. Chicago was where Dillinger was killed (right across the street from the long gone and much beloved Lounge Ax) and the Valentine's Day Massacre took place in a Clark Street garage. My parents watched the news every night and clucked their tongues at the random violence of the city: animals. That was how my father referred to city-dwellers. Animals.
I couldn't wait to get here, of course. What does Chicago mean to me? It means all those same things as before: immigrants and socialites, gorgeous feats of architectural wonder and little dusty shops, a gorgeous blue lake and dirty streets. It means a whole bunch of voices coming together - the mother shouting at her son, the two Latinas with the Cub Foods bags laughing with one another, the guy on the business call, the teenager leaving messages - on the bus with the grouchy CTA driver. It means, perhaps, being nonchalant about the occasional drama (political corruption, neighbors in a fire escape argument, a sound that may or may not have been a gun discharging) but taking plowed streets and your opinion as to whether shoveling out a parking spot gives you unofficial ownership of said spot very seriously. (It does not.) It means toughing out the winter together and feeling reborn and deliciously alive on that first warm day: it means savoring the warm months - the beach, the street festivals, dining outdoors - with everything you have. It means not taking things for granted. Chicago means magnificent museums and spray-painted murals inside underpasses. It means the women in colorful saris (and the mouthwatering scent of curry in the air) of Devon Street and the old school hippies of Rogers Park and the nouveau riche of Old Town and the community organizers of Logan Square and the lesbian parents of Andersonville and the party boys of Lakeview and the political artists of Pilsen and the safe streets activists of Austin. It is talking a little too fast but always stopping to help that confused looking stranger holding the map. Being a Chicagoan means that there are going to be a bunch of us kind of squished together so let's all just accept one another, okay? Except if you're flaky: native Chicagoans are famously intolerant of flakes.
One day a couple of years back, my son and I had stopped in the bathroom at Water Tower Place after we'd been playing in the playground in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art. One woman walked into the crowded bathroom, visibly overwhelmed, carrying a bunch of huge American Girl bags. I said something to her as I was drying my hands, asking her where she was from probably, and then she asked me where I lived. I told her that I was from here. "I can't imagine," she marveled, her eyes wide. "There's so much to do. We don't have anything to do back home." My son grabbed my hand, pulling me away, eager to get back outside. "The whole city is our playground," I said as he dragged me off. "You're so lucky," she said.
I am. I love this place.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
The dog-shaped hole in my heart...
From my earliest memories, I have always been bewitched by dogs. At a very young age, I was very, very determined to get a puppy and being equally persistent about voicing this desire. I distinctly did not want a baby brother or sister but a floppy-eared, wet-nosed, four-legged bundle of wiggly, yipping energy? Sign me up. I'm not sure how the decision came about that, yes, a puppy would be a fine addition to our nutty house on Romona Road, but the puppy of my dreams did indeed materialize when I was four. And almost just as abruptly, he disappeared from my life.
His name was Duffy and he was a tri-colored beagle. He was eight-weeks-old and, like all puppies, he packed a genetically favorable combination of heart-melting charm along with his sharp-as-needles teeth. I remember bouncing out of bed every morning like I had like I had a coiled spring underneath me to rescue Duffy from the cage where he slept at night. I loved everything about him, including his always searching, pain-inflicting teeth: I loved Duffy's puppy breath. I loved his high-pitched barks. I loved feeling his heart beat like a metronome on speed with my little hand pressed against him. I loved watching him sleep, messily snort up his kibble like a vacuum cleaner run amok, bounce through the grass in our back yard like he was exploring the jungle. I wanted to marry Duffy when I grew up.
My mother did not share my affection for him.
I remember her following our ever-kinetic puppy around the house with carpet cleaner, a roll of paper towels and a forehead that would grow more furrowed by the day. Duffy and I were oblivious for the most part: I was too busy trying to dress my squirming puppy in my sun hat and put him in my baby carriage. Duffy, of course, was immersed in his schedule of chewing, bouncing and peeing. My mother kept a fastidious home, though, and so Duffy became her nemesis with an unstoppable bladder. Unbeknownst to me, he was living on borrowed time at our home. First Duffy was confined to the basement. That was okay: I set up a special love den for us there with extra pillows and chew toys. Then he ripped up the couch, scratched the wood panels on our TV set (this was the 1970s), created a malodorous, widening yellow stain on my mother's new carpet. Chewing up the telephone cord was apparently the last straw. Duffy was on his way out.
One morning, through behind-the-scenes machinations unknown to me, my grandfather came to our house and picked up my sweet Duffy, his cage and toys. It was all sprung on my brother and me at the last minute. Duffy was going to "a farm" my mother explained. He would be happier there. He would have the space he needed. He would have other dogs to play with. I nearly lost my mind with grief. I sobbed and pleaded as I watched my grandfather load Duffy up into his Buick and drive away, but even as I did, I knew it was both final and futile. My mother cried along with me and my brother but her jaw was set in a certain way that let me know she was serious about excising this nuisance from her life. Duffy was in and out of our lives in about two weeks time. Every last trace of him, except the aftermath of his plundering, was erased. I would wonder about Duffy through the years, imagining him as he grew older, trying to envision this verdant farm where he allegedly went to live. I cultivated a vivid fantasy of loading up a hobo pack with dog biscuits and squeaky toys, running off to find Duffy and stealing him back at night. We would snuggle for warmth on train cars. When I imagine him now, I see him in snapshots, those bright, thick Kodak photos from the era. He's frozen in time, a puppy forever, no grey to ever creep up on his muzzle.
For years, I whined and cajoled and guilt-tripped and pestered for another dog. When I was ten, my mother bought a parakeet instead, thinking this would somehow placate me. My mother, never much of an animal person, didn't realize the extent to which I had a dog-sized hole in my heart. Chipper, the poor little parakeet, did nothing wrong except be born a bird and given to a girl who wanted nothing but a dog. Alas, he did not satisfy my itch in the slightest. He chewed on his wobbly penguin toy with a compulsive fervor, singing strange, torturous songs to himself, until his beak became warped (I say this now, fully horrified by my negligent care of him) and when he died two years later while I was at overnight camp, I was sad but quickly ready to move on. Where was my puppy?
When I was in seventh grade, my tireless campaign to get another puppy finally bore fruit. (Maybe this set the stage for me becoming an activist later?) I was told that if i got an A on our huge government test, I could choose my prize. Of course, without a second wasted, I knew what would be in the pot at the end of the rainbow: a bouncing baby dog. Not knowing anything about companion animal overpopulation or the benefits of adoption, I had my heart set on a buff-colored cocker spaniel. I trained like a triathlete and got an A on the government test and every day after, I would circle puppy ads in the classified section of the Chicago Tribune and read them to my mother. I had a list of names I kept in my notebook, and I still remember some of them: Taffy, Pumpernickel, Butterscotch. (My animal naming skills have improved considerably since then.) Finally, the day came when I could be put off no longer: we loaded up the car and drove to a house a million miles away or maybe in Wisconsin. There was the puppy for me, surrounded by his litter mates, sleepy-eyed and silky and perfect as he rested on a dog bed. I scooped him up in my arms, a million little cartoon hearts audibly popping all around my head like bubbles. This one! I would get teased for years after for naming our boy dog Buffy, but I guess I was still mourning that lost beagle puppy, by that point solidly middle aged, who had been wrenched so hastily from my four-year-old all those years prior.
Buffy. Oh, Buffy. Perfect blond, wavy locks like a canine, cross-dressing Farrah Fawcett. Beautiful, graceful profile. Sad, sweet, droopy eyes. How were we to know that under this gorgeous exterior beat an inbred heart filled with unbridled, easily provoked, unpredictable rage? Buffy was a biter, not a nipper: he was a Cujo-like creature out for blood. Buffy had to walk around the house with his leash on because otherwise he would try to forcibly remove your hand when clicking it on. Buffy also relieved himself on the carpet. No matter: I loved him. Even my mother, so intolerant of his predecessor years earlier, loved him. We just understood from the outset that he was not one of those cuddly dogs. Buffy liked to be loved at a distance. Sometimes one could forget this, though, and get deluded into thinking that he was as sweet inside as outside. Once he was lying on my bed with me and I made the grievous error of startling him with a pet: he pounced on me and pinned me down, this little thirty pound cocker spaniel, snarling and drooling and crazy-eyed just an inch from my face. The face of Old Yeller after his tussle with the rabid raccoon. I didn't dare move an inch, frozen there. Fortunately my brother happened to poke his head in my room: he threw a pillow at Buffy and he jumped off me and ran under the bed.
We learned to live with Buffy, the occasionally terrifying despot, and we forged a relative peace. Still, this was clearly not the cuddly dog of my dreams, the one I would skip off into the horizon with, the girl and her dog. He did start the chain of dogs I have lived with over the years, though, one that was largely uninterrupted until recently. After a string of fostering gigs with the shelter I worked at after I graduated college - there was Sweetpea, Marley, the brown shepherd mix I've got photographic evidence of but have long since forgotten the name of - Lenny arrived in my life with my new boyfriend, now my husband.
Lenny was The One. He was bliss and perfection in dog form, at least to us. We adopted him from a friend who saw him out on the street and had been trying to catch him for weeks. He was an adult dog, perhaps two, a long and short beagle-basset-cattle dog mix, or so we guessed, and covered with fleas. His little paws stuck out like duck feet and he had an oversized, beagle head. When we first adopted him, Lenny had somewhat of a goofy appearance because he was underweight, which made his head look even bigger; people would tell us he looked like several different dogs stitched together. His eyes were beautiful beyond description but I'll do my best: large, almond-shaped and the color of shiny, new pennies, his eyes were generously rimmed with soft, thick eyelashes he let me brush my index finger against and then accentuated again with a black outline, like an Egyptian pharaoh. Lenny would look deeply into my eyes and seem to want to talk: I think we were both frustrated by this. Even though there were limits to our ability to communicate, he still got his point across, whether he was howling with his beautiful, sonorous voice or taking in the world with his proud, regal bearing. Lenny fit into our lives seamlessly and was never like our child: he was immediately and completely an equal. He wouldn't settle for less. We took trips with Lenny, went with him to the beach, spent so much time just loving him. When I was away, even for the day, I felt like I had little wings at my feet, I was so eager to see my Lenny, my angel. He's been gone for eight years now, dying two months to the day before my son was born (also with those frequently commented on big, soulful eyes), and I miss him pretty much every day. The intensity of the grieving lessens over time but the void is still there, still keenly felt. You know how when you meet someone and it's like you've always known one another, there's that elusive, soul-gratifying connection, that instant feeling of "this is family"? I had that with Lenny. I am convinced that he was a true soul mate of mine in canine form. Mementos of Lenny in photographs are scattered throughout the house: smiling at the forest preserve, dignified near a tacky "Injun" statue along Route 66, following a scent on some long-forgotten path, and I always feel something like a magnet in my chest, wanting to pull him back here with everything I've got. Oh, Lenny. You inspire purple prose...
Buster was the second dog we adopted, overlapping with Lenny. He was the Yin to Lenny's Yang, the peanut butter to Lenny's jelly, the bitter to Lenny's sweet. Buster had a challenging early life, coming into our home as a six-month-old basset hound who'd already been turned into the shelter for aggressive behavior and housebreaking issues. Of course I was arrogant enough to assume that with my affection and superior skills, Buster's true, sweet nature would be able to emerge. Nope. He was who he was. He was eight before he was housebroken and aggressive until his dying day. I remember my son, at two, walking past Buster just to be growled at. My son came to me, sobbing, hugging me, "But I love doggy!" How can you explain this to a two-year-old, that sometimes our love doesn't matter? By the time Buster passed away, last February, my son was six and he had an understanding of the dog. Like Buffy, Buster expected you to love him from afar, although even that might warrant a suspicious growl. Buster helped to teach our son that there were all kinds of personalities out there and not everyone wants to be loved in the same way. To love Buster was to simply accept him. I loved Buster - definitely different in nature than the deep connection I had with Lenny - and it manifested more as a quiet, simple allowing of him simply to be himself with no strings attached or expectations. In other words, loving without condition. Just as my love for Lenny helped me to grow, my love for Buster also enriched my life, teaching me that it's easy to love another when there are no conflicts. The real test of my character was to love despite conflicts.
After more than a year without a dog, the longest stretch I've gone since Buffy, I am ready to love again. The dog-shaped hole in my heart that I felt so keenly as a child is still there, pounding away with its sad emptiness. We have a kitty we adopted two years ago and I am besotted with her and her little black-spotted nose. Clover has the most feminine little meow. My son adores her and oversees her education at Clover School a few times a week, even keeping a folder where he charts her progress. (It's all very cute: her schedule, which he writes on his chalkboard, is always something like Cat Recess, Cat Library, Cat Climbing, Cat Snack, Cat Second Recess, etc., with the word "cat" always preceding activities.) I love Clover but my heart also pines for the mutual affection and deep personal connection one gets with a dog (experiences with Buffy and Buster notwithstanding). Dogs are just so sanguine and physically present. My husband, the chief dog-walker and primary hold out, knows that he can't put off the tag team of me and my son much longer. Maybe this spring there will be a dog full of love and affection for us at the shelter? It'll be a match made in heaven. Maybe he'll have floppy ears? Maybe he's a she? Maybe he will wag his tail so hard - thump-thump-thump! - against the floor when we get ready to take our daily walk to pick up my son at school?
No matter what form our future dog takes shape, I know he is out there and my dog-shaped hole will be filled all snug once again.
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