Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Wayne Dyer offered to endorse my book!

Back in April 2007, the wonderful Dr. Wayne Dyer offered to endorse my book, Rex and the City: A Memoir of a Woman, a Man, and a Dysfunctional Dog. I'd been explaining to Dr Dyer that I wanted this book to help abused and abandoned dogs, by telling an honest story of what the experience of rescuing a dog can be like, and he, without my prompting, immediately made an offer to endorse it. What an honor, as he is a man who always keeps his promises! And he's a real animal lover, too. (He calls himself a "cockroach rescuer."). So I feel quite lucky.

Anyway, the vernerable Mr. Dyer is currently on tour promoting his own, stellar book called Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life. In this book, Dr. Dyer offers his interpretation of the Tao, and it really *will* change your life. In phenomenal ways.

Adopting a dog will change your life too, but Lao Tsu has about two thousand years on me! So I shall defer to my elders. And send out strong waves of gratitude to Dr. Dyer. If anyone hears him mentioning my book, please do let me know! Merci.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My Own Personal Book Burning


I'm not one to toot my own horn, and I consider that a big fat flaw, especially these days, when books sale based on hype more than they sell on the quality of the actual book. But whatever. I need to be more proud of my work. No more of this I'm-too-shy-I'm-not-good-enough crap. If I don't promote myself, no one will.

So here goes. Four months* ago the paperback version of my memoir, Rex and the City, came out to critical acclaim! I've gotten excellent reviews, and people are actually reading it!

*Yes, four months ago. In this day and age, in which everyone who's anyone (and even everyone who's no one) has a blog, you find that most writers let their readers know about such things in advance. But I was too depressed this summer to get very excited about such things as my very own paperback book launch. That's another story, one I won't bore you with here.

What did I do to celebrate the launch? I set a copy of the book on fire. This has nothing to do with imbalanced hormones, or pyromania; rather, I saw it as a lovely and symbolic way to "let the book go." I literally wanted to see the book transform to ash and smoke and float off into the cosmos. I felt it had a better chance of reaching readers this way.

If you are a Buddhist, or have read any of Wayne Dyer's book, or practice something called "non-attachment," then you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. If you're none of the above, well, just chalk this all off to the fact that I live in Woodstock, New York, and that we do that sort of thing all the time here. There's always something being burned in this town--and not just spleefs! I'm talking ceremonial burnings. Just last week I was invited to a bonfire hosted by a fresh divorcee, and we were encouraged to bring items to burn from relationships that "no longer served us."

Anyway, it just so happened that the day my paperback book was released - June 23, 2007 - was also the day I handed in the first draft of my novel, NOTHING KEEPS A FRENCHMAN FROM HIS LUNCH. Right now I'm wishing I had set that baby on fire as well, but that is another story, one I won't bore you with here (but rest assured that deep depresssions and writers' deadlines seem to go hand in hand).

We waited until the sun went down, which in June was after 8 pm, and then my friend Greg torched up the bonfire and my friend Lilly cracked open the bottle of Veuve Clicquot. We sat on stones surrounding a great outdoor firepit, underneath an enormous, starry, mountain sky. I made a little speech about REX AND THE CITY - how I wished it well, how I encouraged it to move on and out into the world. This book is a memoir, so it will always be part of me--a literal chronicle of my life. But still, I felt it was important to separate myself from it, to not be attached to its outcome, to not worry about who's reading it and who isn't. So I set my book into the fire. Oddly, it didn't catch right away. It just sat there, nestled in the flames, kind of like a passenger settling in before a long flight. {terrible metaphor, i know, but i am taking a medication right now that seems to produce nothing but stiff sentences and bad metaphors}

So while my book sat on its pyre but did not burn, I talked about Wallace - the dog about whom I wrote this book. I thanked him for being in my life, and for being the inspiration for this book. I thanked him for giving me so much love. I didn't go too overboard with this speech, because dear Wallace is dead, and I didn't want to make my bonfire audience too uncomfortable. They are all dog lovers, my friends, but not necessarily the types to make weepy laudatory speeches about their dead dogs four years after the fact. So I kept the real sentiments to myself.

I kept this missive to myself, also: the fact that I silently asked Wallace to watch over the book, this book that now finally had caught on fire. For some reason I felt that this transformation from book to smoke and ash would somehow make the book more accessible to Wallace--or rather, to his spirit. (Call me crazy, if you wish. I have been called better, and worse. ) Wallace had been cremated, after all, and now Rex and the City was being cremated, too. Ashes to ashes. I silently asked Wallace to help this book along on its mission, which is to spread the word about the importance of helping abandoned and abused dog.

So the book burned, and the Veuve Clicquot went down smoothly, and a young man named Clayton played the drums. You could actually hear its echo in the nearby mountains.

In the morning, I returned to the firepit to see what remained of the book and, yes, to collect some ashes to keep in an urn on my mantle. ( I find that sort of thing amusing, and it gives my family plenty to talk about, so why not?). My book, my first book, my little REX AND THE CITY had been reduced to a fine white powder, as soft as talc. The only thing that remained was about two inches of the bookcover--and it happened to be the illustration of Wallace's face. I took this as a good sign. That I was being watched over. And that a force larger than me was watching over my book. I bid it Godspeed.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Tompkins Square Park Annual Halloween Dog Parade

In honor of my appearance—as a judge, no less—at the 17th Annual Tompkins Square Park Halloween Dog Parade, I thought I would post, on this blog, an expanded version of my doggie-Halloween story that originally appeared in The Bark magazine in 2003. (Half of this story also appeared in the book version of REX AND THE CITY). But anyway, on to the story.....

Rex and the City: The Curse of the Three-Headed Dog

There’s nothing like Halloween in New York City. New York is home to some of the most artistic and creative people on the planet, most of whom will jump at any opportunity to put on a show. Consider the city’s eight hundred thousand drag queens, who, just to take a trip out to the deli, will put on seven-inch platforms, a sequined butterfly shawl and a two-foot wig. In the weeks before Halloween, the whole city began to fill with a fizzy, randy excitement. Shop windows were crammed with bondage gear, feather boas, broquaded undies and outrageous wigs, and the window boxes of the West Village overflowed with chrysanthemums and pumpkins and squash—all in their final bursts of color before the decay of the winter set in. And all those flamboyant colors; all those sequins, feathers and rubber masks started to bring out everyone’s inner drag queen. And it was no different for the dog people. There are more that thirty dog runs in the city, and therefore more than thirty annual doggie costume parades.

At that point in time (1998) we had just started taking Rex to the Tompkins Square Park dog run. Each run in the city has its own flavor and “First Run” as it was called (because it was the first in NYC) was known for 1) the youth of its doggie parents (most were East Village kids in their twenties); 2) the number of pit-bull mixes (most of the young doggie parents adopted pits from the ASCPA in the East 90’s, or found them on the streets); 3) the number of dog-brawls that occurred daily (it was a transient neighborhood, with a lot of new dogs); and 4) The legendary First Run Annual Halloween Costume Contest, which drew the likes of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.

When I first saw the sign for this Halloween contest in early October, I felt my entire universe expand. Dogs in costume! At the thought of this, something latent was awakened in me—something ancient and profound. I told Ted in no uncertain terms that we had to go to this contest.

“Are you thinking of dressing Rex in a costume?”


“He’ll hate it.”

“No he won’t.”

Ted and I, by that point had begun to communicate in a really weird, passive way through the dog. We would convey our own wants and needs through Rex. For example, I might say to Ted: “Rex really needs to get away for the weekend. I think he wants to rent a room in a nice B&B.”

Anyway, I managed to convince Ted that Rex wouldn’t mind having to wear a costume. I can’t remember how we came up with the idea, but we had decided to dress him up like a little hiker. I think it all started with this brown wool hippy hat that used to belong to a stoner friend of Ted’s from high school. The hat was handmade in Peru, and slightly pointy on top, and had two strings that you could tie under your chin. Ted had asked me once if I wanted it, but I am much too serious a person to wear silly Peruvian hats. (The hats I wear cost $550 and I never even wear those, because I always buy them on a whim, and they are really only appropriate at English garden weddings, and I have not yet to date been invited to any weddings in the UK.) So anyway, I suggested we put the Peruvian hat on Rex, just for kicks.

This opened up a can of worms, of course, that determined much of Rex’s future. For I quickly realized that I got a true and unadulterated pleasure from dressing up my dog. “He looks so cute,” I shouted. “Oh my God. Get the camera.”

“The poor boy,” Ted said. “How humiliating.” But still Ted got the camera.

The rest of Rex’s Halloween costume quickly fell into place. Rex already had his own little backpack, for camping trips, and Ted agreed to donate a pair of ratty hiking shorts he’d had for years. He started to have regrets, however, when I spent $30 on a little wool sweater and cut strategic holes in his cherished shorts to accommodate Rex’s tail and privates, but by then it was too late. The contest was only one day away.

“You’re going overboard,” he said the next morning as I gussied up Rex. “Everyone else will probably show up with their dogs in cat ears and witch hats.”

“So what?” I said. “This is fun. Plus, we’ll win.” For a final touch, I put a Catskills trail guide in the pocket of Rex’s backpack, so that there would be no doubt that he was a hiker.

The day itself was one of those perfect fall days you read about: crisp, cool, clear, with the scent of autumn leaves and hot cider donuts lingering in the air. I insisted on dressing up Rex at the apartment and couldn’t contain my excitement at the cuteness of it all. I started to have visions of Rex being in the movies, of starring in dog food commercials, of his face gracing millions of cutesy-dog greeting cards. And a photographer from the Times would definitely be at the contest—one came every year. So maybe finally I’d get my picture in that paper. With my award-winning dog. “Oh my god, he’s so cute!” I said for the millionth time. (If I couldn’t have my own time in the spotlight, then, by God, Rex was going to have his.) Will you take a picture of him before we leave? It’s his first party, in his first party suit.”

“Let’s not prolong the torture,” Ted said. “The poor boy.” Admittedly, looked downtrodden, as if he wished he had nothing to do with the human world. He kept lifting his eyelids, and twisting his head left to right, trying to figure out what was on top of his head. He also tried to pull off the backpack with his mouth, but he couldn’t quite reach.

“Let’s just go!” Ted said.

I enjoyed all the attention we got on our twenty-minute walk to the dog run, but Ted clearly did not. “Look at that dog!” people on the sidewalks shouted. “He’s so cute!” All around us, people laughed and pointed and smiled. I basked in their praise; I loved being in the spotlight, even indirectly. But Ted seemed pained.

“He’s such a dignified dog,” he kept saying as we walked through the East Village. “This isn’t right. You’re humiliating him. He’s going to grow up to be a pansy. He’s going to be like Hemingway, who was all screwed up because his grandmother dressed him in girlie clothes.”

“No, he’s not,” I said, undaunted. I stopped to talk to strangers and told everyone cute little anecdotes about Rex. “He used to be a shelter dog,” I would begin. “And he used to hate us. And he would never let us touch his head. And now look at him with his little hat....”

“Rex come,” Ted would say, pulling on the leash.

“Rex was enjoying himself,” I said to Ted when I caught up to him.

“That’s because that woman petting him has a hot dog.”

“No it’s not. It’s because she told him he was cute.”

On and on this went, all the way to the park. It wasn’t until a horde of pretty girls in go-go boots ran up to Ted to ask what kind of dog Rex was, that the tight, slightly pained look left Ted’s face.

When we reached the grassy area within Tompkins Square Park, Rex went immediately went into hunting mode. His steps slowed, his torso sank lower to the ground, and his nose twitched with the precision of a sonograph as he picked up subtle scents. You could tell he had forgotten he had a little ski cap on, and a backpack, and a toddler’s sweater and silly shorts. “Look at him stalking those squirrels!” the girls in the go-go boots shouted.

“Poor Rex,” Ted muttered. “The poor emasculated boy.” But this hadn’t stopped him from bringing along his video camera. He followed Rex along, zooming in for close-ups, as Rex crept slowly toward a squirrel.

When we finally reached the dog run, I was astounded at what I saw. You’re always going to find, at every Halloween contest across the country, a lab in Christmas antlers, and one or two Dog-zillas, and a golden retriever in a store-bought Yankees cap. But try to picture a Harlequin Great Dane dressed up as a giant sunflower. Or a matted grey Shitzhu dressed as a mop and accompanied by a short gay man dressed as a frumpy housewife. The costumes were spectacular. There was a shepherd mix in a curly black wig and Gene Simmons makeup, and a tiny leather jacket embossed with the logo: Kiss. There was a couple dressed up like farmers, carrying baskets of produce, and tucked within the vegetables was a tiny Chihuahua in a pea pod costume, shivering nervously the way Chihuahuas do. There were Pit Bulls sporting cow udders, and six Dachshunds spray-painted yellow to look like a bunch of bananas, accompanied by a giant man in a gorilla suit. “Wow,” Ted said. “I’m impressed.”

“I’m depressed,” I said. One of the great, but also one of the rotten, things about New York City is that no matter how creative you are, no matter how talented or clever or smart, there’s always going to be someone out there who’s smarter and more talented and more creative than you. Every second of every day.

“Look at that costume!” Ted said. And there I beheld my nemesis. Across the run, wearing Gucci sunglasses and surrounded by adoring fans, was a man and his golden retriever, whom he had fashioned into a Three Headed Dog. From a distance the two extra heads looked life-like, and they continued to look life like even as we got close. “How did you do that?” someone asked, through a crowd that was three-people deep. “With Styrofoam,” he explained. “I’m a set designer.” And he went on to describe how he had begun constructing the heads back in August, how he had required his dog, Butterscotch, to pose for an hour each evening as he painted her likeness on the busts, and how it had taken him three weeks to find the best “suspension mechanisms” to attach the heads to Butterscotch’s collar. Then of course he had to go out and find the perfect cape to conceal the suspension mechanisms. And the cape had come from Shanghai Tang ( a high-end Asian boutique on Madison Avenue).

“That shawl had to have cost six hundred dollars,” I said to Ted as we slunk away. “And did you see that they eyes on the Styrofoam heads actually blinked?”

“I’m blown away,” Ted said.

“If I had known people were going to spend six months on their costumes, I would have put more effort into Rex’s.” I stared at the three-headed dog’s magnificent cape. “I don’t even have socks from Shanghai Tang.”

“But look our puppy, he’s adorable,” Ted said. “And he’s being such a good boy.” Rex always stayed by our side at the dog run, because he was still intimidated by the presence of so many dogs. “Come on,” Ted said. “Let’s go sign him in.”

When we got to the registration desk, we found out we had to have a name for Rex’s costume. I hadn’t thought of a name. I thought the costume spoke for itself. To me, Rex looked like a little hippie kid, a Bates student, a Trustafarian going off on a hike. “How about Happy Camper?” I said to Ted. And don’t they always say First Thought, Best Thought? Because then, for some reason, I decided that I had needed to have a more literary name. Something more clever and tongue-in-cheek. I thought then of Jon Krakauer, the author of Into The Wild. “No one is going to know what you’re talking about,” Ted said. But I reasoned that we were in the East Village, a neighborhood full of artists and writers and tortured souls. Any of the above would certainly have read Into the Wild, which was the “it” book of the moment.

So we—or rather, I—registered Rex as “Jon Krakauer” and we took our place in line for the parade to begin. Ted gave me one of his looks—one I liked to call “The Crow.”

The contest began by everyone parading their dogs around the perimeter of the run as a group, and then each of the contestants was called one by one. The whole dog run was lined with was lined with giddy onlookers. As each contestant was called forth they hooted and clapped and cheered. The sound of so much applause was uplifting, and I laughing along, but then Rex’s name was called. The MC said: “And here’s Rex the English Setter, and he’s posing as, as, um, Jonathan Kra......Jon Cracker?” The crowd, who had just been cheering madly for the Mastiff-as-ballerina before us, now grew silent.

In this void, I told Rex to heel and we promenaded along. I smiled nervously and fakely, like a beauty contestant finalist who has just found out she was eliminated after just the first round. I tried to make eye contact with Ted, who was out there somewhere with the onlookers, but I couldn’t find him in such a crowd. Then our moment was over. Rex and I returned to our place in line, and then some other dog’s name was called. “That was our fifteen minutes of fame,” I whispered to the dog. “And it sucked!”

The Three-Headed Dog won of course, soon the dog and his costume designer were mobbed by photographers and fans. Dejectedly, I took off Rex’s short and backpack, so that he could go and happily hump the ballerina and bite other dog’s necks. “I should have just called him the Happy Camper,” I said to Ted as I stuffed Rex’s little hiking shorts into my bag. Across the run, I watched people congratulate the set designer. He seemed a bit too proud of his achievements; a bit too smug.

Ted thought the whole thing was hilarious. “Jon Krakauer,” he said over and over again. “Into the Wild!” He trained his video camera onto me and said, “This is Lee pouting because Rex didn’t win the Halloween contest.”

When he saw that I wasn’t laughing, he said. “Let’s go to Veselka’s and get some lunch.” Ted, like all good city boyfriends, knew that certain restaurants could always cheer certain mopey women up. For me, it was Veselka’s: pirogues (steamed, and stuffed with potatoes, cheese and broccoli), French fries, and a cold Pilsner Urquell on tap.

We leashed up Rex and headed off. As we were leaving the park, a nice young woman ran up and touched my shoulder. “I thought yours was the best costume.”

“Really?” I turned to her and smiled.

“He should have won first place.”


This is one of the wonderful things about New York: for every stranger who has the capacity to ruin your day—whether deliberately or not—there are always two or three more strangers who will extend to you a fresh, pure act of kindness.

“See?” I said to Ted at Veselka’s. “Someone got it. I wasn’t totally out of line.”

“Yes, Lee,” he said. “One in twelve hundred people gets you.” He touched my hand. “Make that two.”

Rex, as if he understood us, turned around at that moment and looked at us with what we call his “treat face.”

“Make that three,” Ted said.

This is not where the story ends, however, because from that day forward, for the next two years I tried to devise schemes to out-do the Three Headed Dog and his set designer man.

It was now the year 2000 and, much to my disappointment, the world had not ended as everyone kept insisting it would. Thus, I had to continue living my drudgery of a life. I started thinking about Rex’s costume in early August. Ted and I would be walking along the beach at Fire Island, or hiking in the Hudson Valley, swatting away flies, and I’d say things like, “What do you think of Tommy Hilsetter?”

“What?” Ted would say. “What are you talking about?” He was a serious hiker, who always kept his eyes on the trails, and therefore never really listened to me while he was hiking. Perhaps—and I am seriously just realizing this now, as I write: perhaps this is why he liked hiking so much. It was the only time he could legitimately tune me out.

“For Halloween,” I said. “We could put a little skull cap on him, and really baggy jeans that hang low off his butt. He could be a little ghetto dog.”

“I think that might be offensive,” Ted said. “A lot of kids from the projects play basketball in that park.”

“Well then how about Brittany Spears? We could get Rex some of those big plastic tits and a shiny pink thong.”

“That’s not very original,” Ted said. “Everyone with a Brittany Spaniel has probably thought of that. Plus, Rex doesn’t even look like enough of a Brittany to pass as one.”

Up ahead, we could hear that Rex had flushed out a wild turkey. He let out a war cry and took off through the brush.

“It would be hard to keep a thong on him anyway,” I said.

Eventually—I don’t remember how—I came up with the idea of Dogatella Versace. It was the year Jennifer Lopez had worn that infamous, diaphanous, one-button dress to the Grammys. (And if you don’t know what dress I’m talking about, I can’t help you). I like to think that the idea came to me in one great creative burst; a flash in which I saw the complete outfit: Rex in a mini J. Lo dress, with a long blonde Donatella wig, and his white fur tinted to Versace’s creepy shade of tan.

Eureka! My heart began to pound and the area behind my neck began to tingle, as it always does when I have tapped into The Universal Source.

There were two obstacles to expressing my creative inspiration, however. One was convincing Ted that his son needed to be swathed in Versace, and the other was finding someone to make the dress. Fortunately, we lived in New York City, the land of oddball specialists, so the latter was a piece of cake. At any given moment, you could open up the Yellow Pages and find someone to sing opera to your geraniums while you traveled to Reykjavik; you could hire someone to sew mink to the straps of your seatbelts so that you wouldn’t chafe your chest. And you could find a handful of talented, expensive seamstresses who would custom make a dress for your dog. I found my doggie dressmaker, by providence really, on Manhattan Dog Chat. She just appeared one day in early September, answering a post from someone who had some extra upholstery fabric and wanted to make a little jacket for her “hard to fit” Maltese.

Immediately I called this woman and told her about my Dogatella Versace idea. “How big is your dog?” she asked me. And when I told her Rex weighed seventy pounds she said, “Well, I usually only work with little dogs.” I felt myself getting defensive, and reverting into that hateful “Us and Them” mentality that, as a Buddhist, I try to not maintain: Us being big dog people (they are real dogs, after all) and little dog people. Meanwhile, she was probably thinking I was insane for wanting a Versace dress for a 70-pound spaniel. A male spaniel with no effeminate qualities whatsoever. But because I was the customer, and because I offered to pay her a hundred bucks, we agreed that she would pick out some J. Lo-looking fabric and meet me at my apartment for a fitting the following week. “He’s really cute,” I said added at the end of our conversation, because Little Dog People love to use the word cute.

Ted wanted nothing to do with this. He tried to list all the reasons why I should not dress our dog in drag (i.e.: you’re humiliating him, you have better things to do with your time) but in the end he saw how excited I was about the project and how unwilling I was to back off. “When is she coming?” he finally said in resignation.

“Next Saturday. At three.”

“Well, I’ll just make sure I’m not around Saturday at three,” he said.

When Sheila, the dressmaker, arrived at the appointed hour, we were both relieved to find that we liked each other immediately. You never know with the Internet. She was a theater person, a costume designer, who made clothes for dogs on the side, because it was profitable, and because she loved dogs. “I used to have one,” she said, “but now I travel way too much.” As she talked, she measured Rex’s ankles, and the length of his legs, and the distance from his neck to his tail. “Now, this will be the challenge,” she said, pointing at his privates. “We have to have the plunging neckline to mimic the dress, but it will have to fasten in front of his wee-wee. I’m just not sure it will hang right though.” She stared at Rex thoughtfully, considering how his body would handle the complicated drapes of cloth, and I was glad Ted wasn’t here to witness this. The “wee-wee” comment would have sent him through the roof.

Rex was a perfect fit model. I fed him liver treats throughout the whole process, so that he would stay still, and he didn’t try to lunge at Sheila when she leaned in too close to his head. I was so proud of his behavior, and of his progress as a formerly abused dog, that I started to get teary-eyed. “You’re like the mother of the groom,” Sheila said. “Or the bride, as it were.”

“It’s just that,” I said, wiping my eyes, “he’s a shelter dog, and he was abused, and whenever I see him interact tenderly with new strangers I am just so grateful.” “Now you tell me,” Sheila said. “But he doesn’t seem threatening. It’s usually the little dogs you have to watch out for.”

I agreed.

“Would you like me to take a picture of the two of you when I come back to fit the actual dress?” she said.

We hugged when she showed me the material she’d selected. It was perfect: sheer, green, bold, in a tropical pattern that mimicked the actual dress. Then I showed her the wig I’d bought, which was made of human hair and had cost me $50. “We mustn’t mention costs to my husband,” I said.

“My lips are sealed,” she said.

Then I told her about the Three Headed Dog Man.

“We’ll kick his ass,” she said.

I gave her cash and we arranged to meet for a final fitting in two weeks’ time.

In the meantime, I got a call from one of my mother-in-laws, who said she was going to be coming to New York for a visit. I absolutely love visits from my mother-in-laws (I happened to be blessed with not one but two dynamite mother-in-laws, who liked me despite the fact that I never cooked for their son/step-son, never wrote or called, never produced any grandchildren, and talked non-stop about my dog). But this visit was scheduled for the weekend of Halloween. I faced a true conflict. My manners, upbringing, and sense of general decency suggested that I should scrap the Halloween contest and act like a proper hostess. My mother-in-law was a sharp, sophisticated woman who, when she visits the city, likes to spend her time good restaurants and sample sales. But I’d already invested all that money into Rex’s dress, and I couldn’t get the smug face of the Three-Headed-Dog man out of my head. “Do you think I could talk you into going with me to a doggie Halloween contest?” I asked her on the telephone. “It might be fun.”

“Sure,” she said. “We can do anything you want.”

Her graciousness did not put me entirely at ease, however. I worried that I was

taking a risk with my reputation with that half of the family. In fact, years later, when Ted and I got divorced, I wondered if that particular weekend continued to come up in conversation, when the family sat around the dinner table discussing “signs.” As in, “we always knew that marriage wouldn’t work out; why, think of the time she forced her dog to enter a Halloween contest....”

Anyway, the big day of the contest arrived and I was nervous. My mother-in-law, had arranged to meet me at Tompkins Square Park so that she could do some shopping beforehand, and Ted had decided not to come at all. “I have to work,” he said, which I noticed was something he had to do whenever I had Rex in costume.

He had to work on St Patrick’s Day, when Rex wore a headband with sparkly shamrock antennae. He had to work on Easter (bunny ears) and the Fourth of July (flag hat). He was a hard worker, Ted, and that morning he apologized to Rex for not being able to spend the day with him. “Someone had to pay for all your food,” he said. “And your clothing.

I was busy combing Rex’s wig out. Then I combed my own hair.

When Rex and I got to the park, the sky was overcast and the day was humid—an uncommon phenomenon for October. I was wearing a turquoise vinyl jacket to match Rex’s costume, and the vinyl made me sweat. This for some reason made me cranky, and it was a mood I couldn’t shake. The whole vibe of the contest was off that year. Maybe it was the humidity, maybe it was me, but the dog run seemed less festive; less crowded. “There’s another doggie parade this year over in Chelsea,” someone told me. “All the drag queens are over at that one, I’m sure.” I felt a bit dejected by this—once again something better was happening someplace else, where I was not. And the best place to be is always Where the Drag Queens Are.

But then I got a good look at some of the costumes and felt better again. There was a Corgi transformed into a Hoover. There were two baby cocker spaniels dressed as a bride and groom. Then the Three-Headed Dog man entered the dog run and Butterscotch was dressed up as—get this—Dogzilla. I could hear Ted say, “How unoriginal,” and I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, it was a spectacular costume—he had created a twelve-foot, elaborately airbrushed Styrofoam tail, with spiky fins, savage scales, and moveable parts. But please. Even Aunt Mabel in Idaho could have come up with Dogzilla.

Two years had passed since The Happy Camper had faced the Three-Headed Dog. And Rex was a completely different dog by this point. He was happier, and better adjusted, and the dog run no longer meant “defend thyself” to him; it meant Play. So the minute I took his leash off inside the dog run, he took off after a Border Collie and the two of them ran like mad. “Rex!” I shouted. “Your dress! You’re ruining your dress!” I told him to come but he wouldn’t listen to me. It took fifteen minutes to finally cornered Rex and put him back on his leash. “Now stay still,” I said to him. “Sit!” His wig had been thoroughly dragged across the ground and was now tangled with woodchips and leaves. I told Rex he was the worst dog in the world.

My mother-in-law showed up just as the registration was about to begin. She waved to me from beyond the fence. Only dogs and their guardians were allowed in the run. I blew her a kiss and smiled. Rex’s wig kept slipping off, and every time he moved his dress would shift sideways, and he’d step on the hem with his back paws. “Stay still!” I snapped at him. “When I tell you to sit, you sit!” There was irritation in my voice, and I looked around to see if anyone had heard. Butterscotch and his guardian sat placidly in line, both confident that they would win the contest. Meanwhile, the Border Collie kept running up to us and biting at Rex’s wig. “Go away!” I said to her, and to Rex: “Stay still! When I tell you to sit, you sit!” But poor Rex wanted to play with the Border Collie. He wanted to stalk squirrels. But I was convinced the whole “effect” of his dress would be ruined if he even lifted his leg to pee. So every time he tried to get up from his sit, I’d apply pressure on his shoulders and push him back down.

Years ago, I’d worked at a children’s fashion magazine and one of my jobs was to assist the art director on photo shoots. Once a month, stage mothers would arrive with their stiffly coiffed sons and daughters. I remember my shock the first time I saw a toddler girl wearing makeup and four-inch heels. Her hair had been curled a la Shirley Temple, and she was unhappy that day—perhaps because of the shoes. But her mother was even unhappier. She kept insisting to me that Kelly normally didn’t act so ornery, that Kelly knew how to be a good girl. “She’s just being very bad today,” the mother kept saying loudly and bitterly “Very bad.”

Now the line of dog-contestants moved, and Rex stood up without permission and stepped on the hem of his dress. “Sit!” I snapped at him.

Then, suddenly, I saw myself: angry, snappy, perfectionist, dissatisfied.

I had become a stage mother. I had put my own needs before my child’s. When the beginning of the contest line-up was announced, I couldn’t even look at my mother-in-law. I thought she might see the shame on my face and I didn’t want to see it on her face too.

The crowd roared with laughter when Rex was introduced as Dogatella Versace, and they cheered madly when, later, he won first prize. Last year first prize had been a six-month supply of California Natural and a CD player; this year it was a $40 gift certificate to a new pet store. When we went up to the stage to take the prize, the judge hung a “Best in Show” medal around Rex’s neck. It was brass with a red white and blue ribbon that made him look like an Olympian. As the crowd clapped and cheered, a newspaper reporter snapped our photograph, but I refused to tell him my name. I, who for years had told myself I had sought the spotlight, was suddenly ashamed.

As soon as the contest was over I took the medal off Rex’s neck. Then I took off the dress, and the wig. “You were such a good boy today,” I told him, and then I knelt down and apologized for the beastly way I had behaved. “I’ll never put you through that again,” I told him. “I won’t even make you wear a birthday hat if you don’t want to.”

And so far, my promise has been good.

The medal still hangs on Rex’s bulletin board, which hangs above his “feeding station.” I’d like to think he notices this medal every time the bowl of ground turkey and boiled potatoes is set down before him, and that he somehow feels wistful, or proud, but mostly he just gobbles his food rapidly. Grateful, perhaps, that he isn’t being forced to wear a wig.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering September 11th, First Hand

Below is an essay I wrote in the winter of 2002, when I was still numb from all the 911 horror. You can tell by the prose alone just how numb I was. I was so numb I didn't realize I was numb, know what I mean? Another thing I didn't realize at the time of this essay was that, deep down, I had decided to leave my husband. There's an apathy in this essay that is VERY clear to me now, as I reread it. But back then, than January, it was hard to have clarity about anything.

"The events of September 11th" had that effect on a lot of people. A lot of couples I know--those that were on the fence about their relationship--either got married right away, or split up for good. Suddenly there were no longer any gray areas in relationships. You either wanted to be with this person for the rest of your life, or you didn't. In my case, I realized that I had been waiting for many many years for "things to get better" with my husband.

I spent the weeks after the towers fell watching them fall, again and again and again, on the television set (and in my dreams). I spent those weeks alone, because my husband, a television news producer, made the decision to spend his time at his job rather than with me. And that is fine. People make choices; people have priorities. But I felt surrounded by metaphors.

I tried to get this essay published in the usual places (New York Times, Salon, some travel magazines) but everyone passed. Perhaps rightly. But the beauty of blogs is you can now self-publish even your worst shit. And there's no guaranteeing anyone will read it. But at least this essay will no longer belong to me, once I press that "publish post" button. SO here goes. ANd bon voyage. And blessings, love, and light to all those who were affected by the events of September 11th. Which is so say, every last one of us.


All Rise

In the first few months following the attacks of September 11th, I was unwilling and unable to leave New York City. Like a child who has lost one parent, I found myself clinging needily to the surviving one, and in this metaphoric case, that other parent was Rudolph Giuliani. I wept with him at countless televised funeral services, I marveled at his composure and elocution at every press briefing he held. Thanksgiving passed (along with an opportunity to visit my husband's relatives in New Mexico) and then Christmas (along with an opportunity to visit my sister's country house in New Hampshire) and still I could barely get off the sofa because I didn't want to miss anything this man did or said. He had become my symbol of hope and strength, my higher power, and I probably would have licked the sidewalks in the fish market section of Chinatown if he had asked me. So when he started urging us New Yorkers to get on with life and spend money; when he started appearing on those tear-jerking, I Love New York, airline and tourism industry commercials encouraging us to fly, I felt I no longer had a valid excuse to sit glued to NY1 and the Times' "A Nation Challenged" section. I had to obey Giuliani, so at the end of December my husband I booked a last-minute flight to Acapulco, where some friends of ours had rented a bungalow for the week.

Normally when I travel, I make it a point not to pack t-shirts, or Nike Air Max running shoes, or anything that will peg me as a tasteless, fashionless, logo-obsessed American tourist, but this trip was different. The entire world had changed, and I was a refugee from a proud, fallen city, so into my suitcase went a Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirt, an NYPD T-shirt, a baby blue, baby tee emblazoned with our famous area code: "212." As I packed I was reminded, of my summers during college, when I waitressed on Cape Cod and how my fellow waitresses recoiled every time we saw a car with the Empire State license plate pulling into our restaurant's parking lot. "Oh no!" we would say, truly aghast. "New Yorkers." That meant rudeness, obstinacy, and a huge sense of entitlement was heading straight for my table! And then I remembered how I used to recoil at the sight—or the mere mention—of Giuliani. How I loathed that man. And now, as I zipped up my suitcase, I found myself getting teary-eyed.

"What's wrong?" my husband said when he came into the room.

"We're going to miss Giuliani at the ball-drop," I said with a quivering frown. "We're going to miss the ringing of the bells at six."

"In all the years we've lived here you've never once wanted to go to Times Square on New Years Eve."

"I know," I said, holding back more tears. "But it’s his last public appearance as the mayor and I'm not going to get to see it."

"It's twenty-five degrees out there."

"I know."

"We're going to have a great time on this trip. We're going to have sunshine and water--"

"I know, but—"

"We're going to have a great time. And we haven't left the city since August. It will be good for us to get away."

"You're right," I said. "We've been needing a vacation for a long time." I pulled an

I © NY ski cap tightly over my head.

And soon, we found ourselves having been transported to Acapulco; indeed, to another world: one of aquamarine water and sand the texture of talcum powder, one of freshly caught fish and creamy piña coladas and non-traumatized friends. As the four of us sat, fresh off the airplane, at a beach-front café, enjoying our drinks and the naked, foreign feeling of tank tops and shorts, I realized that here was a place I could actually not think about the WTC. I felt hopeful.

Winter, in our part of the world at least, makes you close in on yourself, seek refuge inside small apartments and sterile office buildings, and encase yourself constantly in a giant tortoise shell of North Face down. Here in Mexico, though, we opened up again like blossoming flowers. Sunlight warmed our skin, a breeze tossed the palm fronds of the thatched roof above and rum, glorious rum, ebbed and flowed through our veins like the tide a few yards away from us, rum that loosed our muscles and unclenched our city jaws.

"Isn't this heavenly?" I said to our friends. They are a fun-loving, easy going couple who live in California and travel like pros. They agreed, and we leaned back in our chairs, and gazed at the bluer-than-blue sky, and into our vision came to rainbow colors of a parachute, attached to a parasailer, gliding noiselessly above the bay. The sight horrified me. He looked--this parasailer--like a person falling from the sky. He had--this man suspended in the air--the same rag-doll, caught-in-a-moment look as the jumpers caught in photographs those first few days after the attacks. Immediately, without thinking, I pointed out the similarities between the parasailer and the WTC jumpers, and immediately I realized I had made a socially awkward mistake. My friends blinked and were left momentarily speechless--and what do you say to a comment like that? It's an association that 9 out of 10 people wouldn't make unless one is exceptionally morbid. Or downright sick. Or a New Yorker.

In the ensuing silence I turned my gaze away from the parasailer. I looked instead at the hundreds of brown heads bobbing in the water. At the rows of high rise hotels lining the Acapulco Bay. Each high-rise was painted a beautiful bold color—like chili pepper red or guacamole green, and each had mirrored windows that reflected the sky. Balconies lined each side of each building, and I saw that there were people on many of these balconies, leaning against their railings, admiring the view. And then I saw that photograph from the Times of all those people hanging from the windows above the burning floors and then I got teary eyed again, and I hastily put on a pair of sunglasses so that no one could tell.

I was not in or near the World Trade Center Towers on September 11. In fact, I am so afraid of heights I have not been inside either tower since 1987—the one and only time I could be coaxed onto the observation deck. So what is it that holds me there now? What holds me inside top floors of the North Tower, with the 700 doomed Cantor Fitzgerald employees, at the windows, in that moment of indecision between burning alive or jumping to the most frightening of deaths? I don't know. And I guess I will never know because anyone who does know what it was like has disappeared.

That evening—the eve of New Year's—the four of us dined at Las Brisas, a five-star restaurant on the edge of Acapulco Bay. We had to drive through seven gates manned by armed guards to get there and thus were giddy with expectation and irony by the time we reached the restaurant, and a team of valets swarmed around us to tend to our car. We were led to a beautifully laid table that was positioned between a sea wall and a tidal pool. The pink uniforms of the waitstaff matched the pink tablecloths and the giant bouquets of fragrant pink flowers. They brought us pink lemonade margaritas that matched the pink, sun-setting sky. A few margaritas later, we were greeted by a moon so huge and white moon it looked like something from a children's book. "It must be because we're so close to the Equator," my husband explained. But I preferred to think we were in the presence of something magical, a sort of NeverNever land untouched by the rest of the world.

The hours passed pleasantly, as we were brought course after course of delicious food and the waiters would never let our wine glasses get below half-full. All that wine, and the food, and the soft air and the huge benevolent moon, seemed to lift us a finger's breath above the table, so that we were suspended in that place of gastronomical happiness—a realm in which there was no World Trade Center, no trace of disharmony with my husband, and no ill in the world at all.

We remained there all evening until the countdown at midnight, when there was a cacophony of fireworks and noisemakers and the band played Auld Lang Syne. We all got out of our seats to hug and kiss and dance, and at the stroke of midnight, they released an enormous batch of silver balloons. They were just balloons, yes, but in that hour, in that place, they seemed otherworldly. They seemed to move in tandem and the way their metallic surfaces caught the moonlight as they rose and turned reminded me of a giant school of fish. Suddenly I was teary eyed again. "What's the matter?" my husband whispered. He had his arms around me and I had my back to him and we both watched the balloons in the sky.

"Those balloons must be for the World Trade Center," I said. "Don't you think?"

"I don't think so, honey," my husband said. "They're just balloons. I think they do this every year."

"But there are thousands of them," I said. "There must be three thousand one hundred and sixteen. For all the missing. Don’t you think?"

My husband must have sensed my desperation, because he kissed the top of my head and said, "I think you're right. I think there are three thousand balloons."

And so, stubbornly and drunkenly, while the rest of the crowd danced, we watched the balloons rising, and prayed three thousand times for the three thousand souls. I wondered, as one always does, where balloons end up. Do they pop? Do they disintegrate? Or would some child in New Zealand find them, washed up like anemones on the shore? We watched them soar past that impossible moon.

Six days later, when we returned to New York, I found a slightly different city. Giuliani was gone, the daily "Portraits of Grief" had been discontinued, and the sports section of the Times was no longer upside down. They had opened up a viewing platform right at Ground Zero and I decided to go there with a balloon. I thought it would be uplifting to see it soar above that charred spot. The wait took hours and my Mylar balloon (which said, I'm ashamed to say, said Happy Birthday on it,) lost quite a bit of its zest in the process. By the time I released it at the platform's railing, it barely took flight. It merely hung in the air in front of me for a few moments and then sunk rather dramatically to the ground. People around me were crestfallen—we all needed this little symbolic lift. "Was it someone's birthday?" a woman finally asked. Everyone was listening. I shook my head and said “not really.” I didn’t know how to explain. But in those days, people no longer needed explanations, because suddenly the whole world made no sense. We were all just looking at that balloon on the ground, bereft. Maybe death wasn’t like soaring at all, I told myself. Maybe death was just--death.

Then one of the rescue workers came over and picked the balloon up. You could tell he’d seen three weeks of horror but behind it all, there in his eyes, was pure kindness. “Whose birthday is it?” he said to all of us, in a fatherly way. A little girl said, “Mine” so he gave her the balloon. The applause was thundering. It soared.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

I Was Bellatrix LeStrange

Greetings everyone!

Last month, on July 21st, aka Book 7 Day, I attended both the Scholastic "Harry Potter Place" Street Fair and the Barnes and Noble Harry Potter Costume Party in Union Square.
(That would be New York City, for those of you not in the know). I was dressed in a fabulous Bellatrix LeStrange costume, custom-made by fabulous fanstasy-costume designer Susan McLoughlin, and I was accompanied by my dog, Chloe, dressed (quite against her will) in a Hogwarts scarf.

Because some dude accio'd my camera, I do not have any images of myself in this costume. But hundreds of people took my picture. So I wanted to spread the word: if you know someone who knows someone who went to the Scholastic and/or Barnes and Noble NYC costume party, and if this someone happened to have taken a digital photo of a woman dressed as Bellatrix LeStrange, please do pass on my email address:

Friday, July 27, 2007

Me and Marley and Me

Note: This is an essay reprinted from May 5, 2006. The editor wanted me to write a very whiny piece, whereas I just wanted to present an observation on the painful process of being "scooped" and recognizing it was nobody's fault but mine.

HERE IS SALON'S TAGLINE FOR THE PIECE: I wrote a memoir about life with the world's worst dog. But before my masterpiece hit the shelves, a pooch named Marley stole my thunder.

By Lee Harrington

May 2, 2006 | I spent five years working on and agonizing over my first book. And when I finally finished it, I congratulated myself not only for being done, but for producing a work that I thought was truly original, something the reading public had never seen before. I started fantasizing about crowds showing up at my book signings, interviews with Katie and Matt, and enormous royalty checks.

Then four months before my book was due to publish, another book came out, one that had almost the exact same premise as the one I had just written. Both are memoirs about life with the world's worst dog. As I handed in the final draft to my editor, rave reviews of the other book appeared in Publisher's Weekly and the New York Times. While I was hunkered down in the first stages of copy edits, the other book hit the bestseller list and the author appeared on CNN. On the very day I approved the final pass of my copy-edited draft, I poured myself a celebratory glass of wine and turned on the radio and heard a well-known broadcaster interviewing the other author, asking him to explain the sensation his book has created. How is it possible, she asked -- with uncharacteristic flirtatiousness -- to sell so many copies of a book about a dog?

At that point, the wine tasted so bitter my cheeks puckered.

The other book is "Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog" by John Grogan. It is a memoir about the author, his wife and his unruly dog, a Labrador retriever named Marley. If you have not heard of this book, perhaps you have been hiding in a cave in Afghanistan. It is there, front and center, as you enter any Barnes & Noble in any of the 50 states. Marley is mentioned in newspapers, magazines, television shows and radio programs virtually every day. I know this not because I am reading the papers or watching television -- I cannot bear to do so any longer. No, I know about Marley because my ex-husband, who works at a news network, keeps sending me e-mail announcements about the book every day. Even though I have asked him not to. Or perhaps because I asked him not to.

You see, he is in my book, my ex-husband. Because I, too, have written a memoir about myself, my ex-husband, who at the time of the story wasn't even my husband yet, and our unruly dog. My book is called "Rex and the City," and it hit the shelves a few weeks ago. Or perhaps "hit" is not the right word. Perhaps, in the wake of Marley, my book will simply float behind, bobbing up and down like a seagull waiting for scraps.

My memoir is a chronicle of my then-boyfriend's and my adventures after we impulsively adopted a shelter dog. We didn't know anything about dogs at the time, and ours had been abused and abandoned, and trusted no one. When we brought him into our 300-square-foot apartment on the Lower East Side all hell broke loose. He growled at us. He tried to bite us. He was impossible to walk and he kept trying to escape. Three times, he actually did get out -- once right on Rivington Street -- and twice was almost killed.

So our relationship went into crisis mode. We had almost broken up nine months before we got the dog, because we felt we just couldn't commit to one another; now, logic told us to bring the dog back to the pound, to resume our old lives. But in spite of all that pain and trouble -- or maybe because of it -- our hearts told us to keep Rex. Indeed, eventually, through a lot of hard work, love and devotion, we turned our canine catastrophe into a cuddle muffin.

Now, I know this is not the first time in publishing history that one book has one-upped another by a matter of months. Right now, for example, there are two books out about the competitive eating circuit. And I know, because my publicist, agent and editor keep telling me, that the phenomenal success of Marley could work to my advantage. It means people buy books about couples with dogs, they say.

I started writing "Rex and the City" back in the summer of 2000, as a serial column for Bark magazine. The series took readers through our ordeals with Rex, moment by moment, and from the start it was popular and reached an intelligent, dog-loving audience. I was content with its success. Eventually the editor of Bark encouraged me to publish my columns in book form, and I had enough material at that point to do so. But when I approached my agent, she wasn't confident it was the kind of story that would sell. "People just aren't buying books about dogs," she said. And because I trusted her, and because I really didn't have much faith in myself as I writer, I abandoned the idea.

Meanwhile, my editor at Bark was e-mailing me constantly, warning me about the dozens of dog memoirs that arrived on her desk daily for review. She reminded me that my book -- ahem -- "stood out from the pack" because it would be the first dog memoir written about a couple with a dog, not an individual. Not only that, she said mine was the only one about an ill-behaved dog. "You must sell your book now!" she ended each e-mail.

Eventually, exasperated with my inaction, my editor at Bark contacted a book editor herself, and gave that editor my name and some copies of my columns. And what do you know? I got an offer. The contracts were signed a few weeks later and I had myself a book with a due date of spring 2005. Wanting to focus solely on my own work, I asked the editor at Bark not to send me any more e-mails about dog books until I had completed mine. And so, Marley crept up unawares.

In August of 2005 I was in France, researching a new novel, when a friend whose first book had sold only 4,000 copies called to say she had some bad news. I thought she was calling to tell me her grandfather had died, but the news was about Marley. "I thought you should know," she said, "in case you don't want to come back."

Should I be afraid?" I asked her.

"Be very afraid," she said.

At that moment, a dreadful feeling began brewing in my gut and has remained there ever since. Doubt. Self-flagellation. Regret. I tried not to tear out my hair like a wailing Italian grandmother at a funeral.

Still, I am always trying to see the positive side of the situation. I had a writing professor in grad school who said there was no such thing as an original story. She told us everything was covered before the birth of Christ, by the Greeks. But there is such thing as an original experience, she told us. Now, I try to remind myself that it is true. Grogan and I have told a similar story, but our experiences are completely different. He and his wife got along; my boyfriend and I did not. His dog was sweet; mine, at the beginning, was not, (but we loved him madly regardless). No two people can ever have the same exact experience; nor can two dogs. (And by the way, my dog was much worse than Marley. Much, much worse. Marley tipped over trash cans. My dog killed sentient beings -- birds, amphibians and mammals I don't want to name. Frankly, my dog could have kicked Marley's ass.)

But I am not one of those writers who begrudges another writer's success, especially when he's written a good book. I'd like to believe there is enough room for all of us. And each time a book hits the bestseller list, well, that should assure all writers that people are still reading books. As for me, I say hats off to John Grogan. He has succeeded grandly, all for the love of a dog.

But still: Being scooped sucks.

In my better moments, I recognize that it does not serve anyone -- not me, not John Grogan, not my editor, or my agent -- to berate myself every day about not getting my book out before Marley. This is just how life is. I don't have to attach any moral significance to it. I am not being punished by God for being a bad person. I don't have to wish every hour that I could go back in time and turn my book in years ago, when Marley was still a pup.

I didn't. John Grogan did. End of story.

Mr. Grogan has a popular Web site on which he invites fans to share their own stories of their unruly dogs. Hundreds have written in with charming tales about dogs that chew on shoes and overturn trash cans, dogs that won't come back when they are called and dogs that pee on floors. Soon I am going to submit my own posting to Mr. Grogan's Web site. I will tell him the story of my terrible, lovable dog. It will be 265 pages long.