Thursday, December 16, 2010
The Moment You Realize Your New Shelter Dog Loves You
Rex and the City
Part III: The Trial Period
It was the Fourth of July weekend of 1997, normally a time when my then-boyfriend and I would have been out barbecuing on the rooftop or having drinks with friends. Anything that involved being outside in the cool night air, basically; for Ted and I lived, back then, in a 300-square foot tenement apartment on the Lower East Side. With a new shelter dog. The fact that we now had a dog had us in shock. Still. So no fun rooftop parties for us.
Instead, Ted and I were sitting comatose in front of the television, watching a documentary on fireworks with the sound turned down. We were not habitual TV watchers per se, but there was something about having added a satanic shelter dog to our lives that made us want to prostrate ourselves in front of something that wouldn’t challenge us or make us think.
Meanwhile, on the television, a burst of green explosives lit up the TV sky, and then came a commercial for carving knives. Vegetables and fruits were chopped with alarming speed, curls of yellow peppers falling away from the knife in spirals, like fireworks, and then a fast-talking announcer promised guaranteed satisfaction over a 30-day trial period or your money back.
“You see that, Wallace?” Ted called to the dog hunkered under the computer table.
I forgot to mention that Ted and I weren’t speaking.
“You’re on a trial period,” Ted continued, still addressing the dog rather than me. “Thirty days. After that, we might have to take you back to the shelter.” He actually wasn’t joking.
“Don’t let him talk to you like that,” I said to the dog. “We’re on trial just as much as you are.” I reached over to pet my dog, to smooth back his ears, but he growled at me and ducked away.
So great. Ted wasn't speaking to me and neither was this dog.
Why were we so upset with the dog? And why were we not speaking? Well, earlier that day, Wallace had tried to escape again. (I am told that shelter dogs do this often--try to run away from their new owners). On this, this second escape attempt on Wallace's behalf, we’d had him in a fenced-in lot on Suffolk Street, and we were trying to get him interested in a tennis ball, which is what we thought all normal dogs would be interested in. But Wallace apparently had no time for games. And no interest in living in New York City. He seemed to consider himself a prisoner and thus, he had apparently scoped this abandoned lot for escape routes and had spotted on a hole in the fence in a far corner.
Meanwhile, Ted and I bounced the ball to each other at first, talking in loud, baby voices about how fun it was, and then we threw the ball for Wallace, saying “Look at the ball! Look at the bouncy wouncy tennis ball!” Ted even unsnapped the dog’s leash and encouraged him to chase it.
Wallace—intelligent, scheming creature that he was—took off after the ball and then, we swear, turned at a 90-degree angle and made his escape. He ran straight up Orchard Street and turned toward Houston.
I screamed his name in terror, but the thing was, Wallace didn’t even really know that his name was Wallace yet. He seemed to still think his name was AH1012 – the intake number he had been assigned at the shelter.
Anyway, Ted and I of course ran after the dog, shouting, crying. After a complicated, death-defying chase, which involved lots of shouting and O.J.-Simpsoning ourselves over hydrants and traffic cones, we caught him. Or rather, Ted caught him, tackling Wallace outside a bodega. By the time I reached them, Ted had alpha-rolled the dog onto the sidewalk and was clutching a hand to the dog’s throat. “Look at me!” Ted was shouting at Wallace. “You look at me when I’m talking to you!”
Poor Wallace was terrified. He had his tail tucked so high between his legs he looked as if he might swallow it.
“Leave him alone,” I said. “He’s upset.”
“You!” Ted turned to me with venom in his eyes. “You baby him too much.”
“Well, you bully him. Dogs don’t like to make eye contact. It’s not natural for them.”
“What the fuck do you know?” Ted said. "And why did you let go of him anyway?"
"What do you mean why did I let him go. You unclipped his leash!"
"Well, you should have known there was a hole in the fence."
Inside, I was thinking: I should have known there was a hole in your heart.
Ted turned away from me in disgust and shook the dog again.
Thirty days, I was thinking. Maybe I’d go to a shelter myself. And take the dog with me.
For the past few weeks we had been doing everything we could to figure out how to handle this shelter dog. We loved him from the moment we set eyes on him, and we knew he was meant to be our dog. But still, we were slowly realizing that the dog's aggression was more than we could handle. We had never had a dog before, and we were clueless about them. Still, we tried out best.
That month, we had cancelled all social and job-related engagements, read every dog book and training manual we could get our hands on, and took Wallace to the park daily to apply what we had learned from our books the night before. The thing was, the books I favored suggested positive reinforcement, whereas Ted’s books encouraged aggressive dominance paired with punishment. My books said to reward desired behavior with treats and praise. Ed’s books said if the dog exhibited undesired behavior, you should clock the unruly dog under the jaw.
Not my style, really. I was more of a let's-talk-this-out-peacefully sort of girl. I imagined Wallace years later on a therapist’s couch, complaining about all the mixed messages his parents gave him. “I never learned how to be a good dog,” he would say. "Everything I did was wrong."
Needless to say, both Ted and I were feeling that we really weren’t capable of handling a dog. One night, Ted and I looked up Wallace’s alleged breed on the Internet. We visited all Spaniel and Setter sites and were told, repeatedly: It is cruel to keep this type of exuberant hunting dog in a city apartment. The word cruel really struck us. Wallace no longer had hair around his neck because his choke collar had pinched it all off (think Epilady). He had to walk backward out of the bathroom because there wasn’t enough room for the poor dog to turn his body around. “It’s like making him parallel park,” Ted said. Outside, on walks, poor Wallace would cut his pads on the glass that littered the sidewalk, and not even sleep gave him solace, as he would spend the nights snarling and snapping and grinding his teeth.
“Maybe we should leave New York City,” I said. “Or give Wallace to someone in the country who wants a dog.”
“But he’s not a normal dog,” Ted reminded me. “He needs professional help.”
At this, I started to cry. We all need professional help, now and then, and I loved my needy, confused little dog. He needed me. How could I ever abandon him after all he had been through?
Ted seemed to be thinking the same thing. He suggested we go camping. “Maybe all Wallace needs is some country air.”
“That’s a great idea,” I said.
We smiled at one another for the first time in weeks. It was so nice to actually agree on something.
So, that weekend, we drove to the Catskills, with Wallace howling in protest the entire way. Who knows what he was thinking--that we were taking back to a shelter? That we would dump him off the side of some highway? He kept hurling himself against the back seat and clawed at the windows, calling out in desperation to the birds overhead and the passing cars: Save me! Can’t you see I’m being kidnapped? It was like traveling with your own personal mosh pit, and by the time we reached the mountains our ears were shot, our jaws were tight and my crisp linen skirt was as crumpled and dirty as that one-dollar bill you always see in a homeless person’s bucket--the one he put there himself.
OKay, so the dogs hates b eing in cars, I thought. Just as musch as he hates being in apartments. Or maybe he simply hates being with us. And who couldblame the dog? Frankly sometimes I hated being with us too.
Once we reached the campground, however, my thoughts changed and I was hopeful again. About Ted, about Wallace, about the concept of "us." Perhaps it was he fertile smell of Silver Lake that lifted my state of mind. And Ted's too. I could see it on his face as he rolled down all the windows.
It was as if each of us saw in that shimmering water the solution to everything: the need to be cool, the need to relax, the need to be cleansed.A vacation! It's what all New Yorkers need.
We headed to this lake as soon as we had set up the campsite--Ted and I in flip-flops, Wallace on his Epilady leash. Two fishermen in a rowboat were just coming in from a day’s outing, and when they saw us at the shoreline they touched their caps. “Good-looking dog you got there,” one of them said. I smiled and said thanks.
“Are you supposed to thank people who compliment your dog?” I asked Ted, who walked far ahead of me. “because it’s not as if we birthed him.”
“Does it matter?” Ted said. He was already busy trying to coax Wallace into the water. Wallace seemed nervous as we waded in. He’d lift one paw out of the water, then another, as if trying to figure out a way to lift all four at the same time. Ted tugged gently on his leash. “Come on, boy,” he said. “Come! Come!”
“Maybe he can’t swim,” I said.
“All dogs can swim.”
“Where did you read that?”
“It’s just a fact,” Ted said.
He started to say come in a more authoritative voice, the way his MOnks of New Skete said to do it. They were the ones who encouraged jaw-punching, and I secretly referred to them as the Monks of Steel.
So as Ted called to the dog in his commanding, slightly threatening Alpha voice, I joined in using a happy, lilting voice, in the manner of my books.
As we spoke, both Ted and I waded backwards, into deeper water, tugging the dog along. But Wallace had put his emergency brake on: feet planted, body leaning back, refusing to go any further. Just then a duck flew overhead and like that, Wallace changed. He became a bird dog, arching his neck and howling in an ancient, primal way, as if calling out to his ancestors. Then he plunged in the direction that the duck had flown. He hopped through the water—his body making lovely, acrobatic arcs—and stopped (in an almost comical way) when he found himself immersed.
Then he wasn’t a bird dog anymore—he was once again a confused city dog, newly released from prison, finding himself in another new and impossible situation. A situation which was cold and wet.
Looking confused, he moved his legs slowly, then more quickly as he realized paddling would propel him forth. He seemed surprised by his own abilities and kept moving his head around, a gesture that made him swim circles.
“Look! He’s swimming!” I said. “Isn’t that cute?” My heart seemed to leap with joy –this was one of my first experiences with the true elation one can feel when witnessing dog joy, and it was exhilarating.
It wasn’t cute or exhilarating, however, when Wallace, suddenly an expert, doggy-paddled to the shore and sprinted away.
“Not again!” Ted said. He used some of his favorite swear words and waded quickly to shore.
Ted and I scrambled to pursue the dog, but given that we were both wearing flip-flops, we couldn’t run very quickly. Plus, I was not about to bounce through the woods in a bikini. O.J. Simpson, yes. Pamela Anderson, no.
Ted ran off ahead of me while I threw on my clothes. Why had we gotten a dog? I asked myself as I heard Ted’s angry voice fading farther and farther away. The answer seemed as elusive as Wallace himself. Instead of bringing us together, it seemed, the dog was wrenching us apart.
For a moment I stood there, seized with worry. The dog would fall off a cliff and get killed. The dog would get shot by an off-season hunter. The dog would get caught in a bear trap. The dog would get hit by a car. And it would be all my fault! Ted would totally blame me! I had to find him now!
I decided to go dog-hunting in the opposite direction of Ted. My instinct told me that Wallace had run east, not west. Plus, I didn’t Ted to yell at me. So I bush-whacked through the woods for about twenty minutes, listening for the dog, and after twenty minutes of searching I spotted a flash of white in some far-off woods. It was our Wallace, galloping down a hill toward a creek, and the look on his face was one I had not seen before. It was a smile. A doggy smile. He disappeared jubilantly from my sight and remained missing for another hour. Maybe he would be happier out here, living in the wilds, hunting birds.
Then Ted’s words came back to me: What the hell do you know?
Feeling worried, abandoned, and defeated, I decided to return to the car. Then, up in the distance, I saw Ted walking toward me with our dog in his arms. Ted was limping from having reactivated an old ski injury. I was limping from weeks of trying to walk Wallace on a leash.
Ted carried Wallace the way a farmer carries a lamb, and Wallace looked distinctively embarrassed by his capture. He’d been emasculated (e-dogulated?), and he knew enough not to protest when Ted put him down on top of a large, flat rock. “Get the camera out,” Ted said. “I want to take some pictures to remember him by, because on Monday we’re taking him back.”
I nodded and once again started to cry. Ted, back in those days, made all the decisions; and I was the wimp who let him.
And so, sadly, we took pictures—one with Wallace and Ted, one with Wallace and me, and then a family shot, automatically timed. You can see in hindsight how exhausted and unhappy we all were. In the group shot the three of us—young couple, messed-up dog—look like Angry White Men on an album cover. Our hard stares were aimed away from one another, as if we were each so locked into our private disappointments we could no longer reach out to people and were ready to turn to drugs.Ah, relationships.
On the way back to the campsite, I held Ted’s hand and Ted held Wallace’s leash. Neither of us spoke until Wallace stopped to poop on the pavement. This made me incredibly sad. “He’s been holding that in for hours!” I said. “Do you think he doesn’t know enough that he can go on grass?”
“Maybe he has never seen grass,” Ted said.
We both considered this. It seemed so tragic to be a dog and not know grass. To not know human love.
That night, in our tent, Ted and I both slept fitfully. I presonally felt like a horrible person--returning an abused dog to a shelter! But I had no words to express this. I worried that Ted would simply criticize me for having such feelings. For having been "stupid" enough to adopt a dog in the first place without thinking it through. I worried he would blame , even though Ted is the one who chose Wallace out of all those dogs at the pound.
Meanwhile, Wallace was outside the tent, tied up to the picnic bench (having declined our invitation to join us), and he paced around like, well, like a wild animal. “Who ever heard of a dog insomniac?” I said. Back and forth the dog paced, uttering grunts of frustration. It was like a tangible represenation of my own thoughts; my own decision.
Ted too kept shifting his position.“Maybe I was too hard on him,” Ted said finallly said after about an hour. There was a tenderness to his voice that made me remember why I had fallen in love with him.
I crawled into his sleeping bag. “Maybe I was too soft,” I said, hugging him. “Maybe we can find a way to meet in the middle.”
Finally, it felt safe to sleep.
As we dozed off, Wallace continued his nervous pacing (a sign of anxiety in dogs). It was though he also had some serious thinking to do—about his life, his career, his future. Or perhaps he had simply felt the weight of our thoughts. And wanted to get away from us—this angry, dysfunctional couple—as quickly as he could.
I could only hope that Wallace, in some moment of clarity, would recognize that we kept chasing him down because we loved him, not because we wanted to hold him back.
In the morning, as the sunlight sieved through the tent screens and the swallows chirped, I felt a strange weight on the right side of my body. I thought for a moment that I had slept in an awkward position that had put half my body to sleep, but then I realized that the pressure came from outside the tent—and that it was something large and warm. Wallace, at some point in the evening, had gotten cold or lonely and had spread himself against me. This was the first time our dog had ever really touched us. There we were, separated by only a thin wall of nylon,
“Ted,” I whispered. “Give me your hand.”
Sleepily he complied, and as I took his hand and pressed it against the warm flank of Wallace’s body, he opened his eyes.
“What’s this?” he said with a smile. And I answered: “I think it’s a normal dog, looking for some snuggling.”
And that was all it took for us to become a family.
Friday, October 29, 2010
In honor of my appearance—as a “celebrity judge” at the 17th Annual Tompkins Square Park Halloween Dog Parade, I thought I would post a chronicle of my own experiences forcing my poor dog to wear a costume, and how I became a psycho-stage mother in my desperation to win the contest.
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 Wallace 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 my then-husband Ted in no uncertain terms that we had to go to this contest.
“Are you thinking of dressing Wallace in a costume?” Ted asked.
“He’ll hate it.”
“No he won’t.”
Most conversations I had with Ted went like this: yes, no, yes, no, why, because, no, yes, I said no, yes, no, FUCK YOU!
In the case of whether to dress up our dog in a silly costume, I ultimately won. I can’t remember how, actually. Perhaps I had to promise some sort of sexual favor, but it’s hard to say....I’ve blocked it all out.
Anyway, I managed to convince Ted that Wallace 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 Wallace, just for kicks.
This opened up a can of worms, of course, that determined much of Wallace’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 Wallace’s Halloween costume quickly fell into place. Wallace 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 Wallace’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 Wallace. “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 Wallace’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 Wallace at the apartment and couldn’t contain my excitement at the cuteness of it all. I started to have visions of Wallace 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, Wallace 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, Wallace did look 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. “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 Wallace. “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….”
“Wallace come,” Ted would say, pulling on the leash.
“Wallace 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 Wallace was, that the tight, slightly pained look left Ted’s face.
When we reached the grassy area within Tompkins Square Park, Wallace 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 Wallace,” Ted muttered. “The poor emasculated boy.” But this hadn’t stopped him from bringing along his video camera. He followed Wallace along, zooming in for close-ups, as Wallace 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 Wallace’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.” Wallace 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 Wallace’s costume. I hadn’t thought of a name. I thought the costume spoke for itself. To me, Wallace 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 Wallace 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 Wallace’s name was called. The MC said: “And here’s Wallace 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 Wallace 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. Wallace 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 Wallace’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 Wallace’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 Wallace 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 Wallace 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.”
Wallace, 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 Wallace’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 Wallace 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, Wallace doesn’t even look like enough of a Brittany to pass as one.”
Up ahead, we could hear that Wallace 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: Wallace 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 Wallace 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 Wallace’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 Wallace 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.
Wallace 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. “They’re assholes.”
“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 Wallace’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 Wallace in costume.
He had to work on St Patrick’s Day, when Wallace 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 Wallace 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 Wallace’s wig out. Then I combed my own hair.
When Wallace 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 Wallace’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 Wallace 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. “Wallace!” 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 Wallace 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 Wallace he was the worst dog in the world.
My mother-in-law showed up just as I was shouting at my dog about the state of his long blond hair. 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. Wallace’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.
The registration was about to begin. 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 Wallace’s wig. “Go away!” I said to her, and to Wallace: “Stay still! When I tell you to sit, you sit!” But poor Wallace 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 Wallace 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 Wallace 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 Wallace’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 Wallace’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 Wallace’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.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
So here is an essay I wrote in the winter of 2002, when I was still numb from all the 9/11 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 while I was writing 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 these days we self-publish even our worst shit, right (and I know that by saying that I am opening myself up to intense flames. But please be kind....). But at least this essay will no longer belong to me, once I press that "publish post" button. So here goes. And blessings, love, and light to all those who were affected by the events of September 11th. Which is to say: every last one of us.
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 tourism 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."
To us on the Cape, New Yorkers 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 on New Year's Eve," I said with a quivering frown. "We're going to miss the ringing of the memorial 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," Ed said.
"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."
"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 LOVE 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 the Northeast 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 that it was heavenly, 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.
I fliched and gasped. 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.
"Are you alright?" my friends asked. Without thinking, I pointed out the similarities between the parasailer and the WTC jumpers, getting teary-eyed as I spoke. Immediately I realized I had made a socially awkward mistake. My friends blinked and were left momentarily speechless
--and what could they say to a comment like that? Equating a parasailer with a burning mid-air body is not an association most people would make. Unless one is exceptionally morbid. Or a New Yorker. Suffering, I realized years later, from PTSD.
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 in my traumatized mind 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.
But let's get back to the sunshine of Mexico: 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 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 Never-Never 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 19, 2010
Who would have thought? I originally published this piece in Salon back in 1999, before the term "Post-Nuptial Depression" was commonplace. Turns out I was the one who coined the term! How's that for a claim to fame? :)
It's summer again, which means wedding season, which means thousands of clenched-teeth brides-to-be across the country are pacing their offices, living rooms or kitchens with a cordless in one hand and a bridal checklist in the other: Trial run wearing dress, shoes and lingerie? Check. Make sure extra bobby pins are in delicate seed-pearl evening bag? Check. Gifts for bridal party? Check, check, check. It's a niggardly, ruthless list and it's way too long, I know, but I have one more thing to add: Prepare for post-nuptial depression.
Maybe it was just me, but for about two weeks following my own wedding last June, I couldn't get out of bed. I felt overwhelmed, agitated and drugged. I could accomplish nothing but sleep. Granted my apartment is conducive to sleeping, what with its crib-like proportions, its lack of windows and the constant presence of a warm and cuddly dog, but this wasn't your regular sleep. This was an every-time-I-open-my-eyes-I-can't-face-reality-so-I-go-back-to-sleep sleep. And according to the Eli-Lily advertisements, this meant I was depressed.
But what on earth was I depressed about? I adored my new husband (still do), I was happy about our marriage and excited to embark on this new life. What was the deal?
Before I attempt to answer this question, I'd like to say I've always had a pretty casual (read: phobic) attitude toward marriage. I never pushed any of my boyfriends for proposals or diamond rings, never gave them ultimatums or moved out if I didn't "see marriage in the future." When I finally did get married, I was (still am) in my 30s, and had already turned down two previous proposals. I guess I've always looked at marriage as an event in my life, not the event.
But once you start to plan a wedding it slowly begins to assert itself as The Event and you have no choice but to bow down to it and pray.
After the engagement, not one day went by when I didn't imagine myself floating down the aisle in the Dress of my Dreams. But then I'd realize I didn't know what the Dress of my Dreams was, so I'd make notes to visit Wearkstatt and Vera Wang, Bloomie's and Bendels, all the thrift shops, Milan, and then I'd realize I didn't know what kind of aisle I wanted, or if I wanted an aisle, or even a church, with all its heady religious implications. So perhaps a Nantucket beachfront would do, if I only knew someone who had one ... but wouldn't all that sand ruin my satin shoes?
Knowing that I can be kind of a borderline obsessive-compulsive person, and because our budget was tight, my fianci and I decided to keep the wedding as simple as possible. There would be no band, no limo, none of that bouquet-and-garter stuff. There would be no video recording equipment and we wouldn't take our honeymoon until the fall. There would be no three-story cake because I knew if we had a cake I'd have to see and smell and taste every single wedding cake in the country before narrowing it down to maybe 10 and then I'd spend hours, days and weeks agonizing over which one to pick. Then, my fianci would say, "Just decide already," and we'd get into an argument and finally, just to settle the matter, I'd have to select any old $900 cake which, at the reception, would be gone, eaten by a pack of 4-year-olds, in about 60 seconds. No, there would definitely be no cake.
And you know what? The simplicity really paid off. We had a manageable number of guests (50 people), a manageable setting (a New England farmhouse) and unpretentious food. Because we had no fanfare, my husband and I could act more like guests at the reception, not vaudevillians. And, best of all, everyone seemed to have a good time, including me.
I was told by millions of girlfriends that I would not remember the day itself, but I remember every second of it. I remember waking up to sunlight and a beautiful blue sky (something blue!) and realizing I'd forgotten to even obsess about the weather. I remember spending the whole gorgeous morning getting ready with my sisters and nieces, applying eye shadows and lipsticks, pinning flowers into hair. I remember laughing as we tried to fit me and my dress into the back seat of my brother-in-law's old Taurus and checking my mascara in my compact mirror about 800 times as we drove to the church. I remember said mascara running down my face the minute I made eye contact with my father, who was waiting proudly at the entrance for me to take his arm. I remember the sharp, sweet scent of my bouquet as we "proceeded" up the aisle, and knowing that the bouquet in my hands was shaking, but not wanting to look down, and looking instead at the faces of aunts and the uncles, the grandmothers and girlfriends, and finally, him, all smiling at me, some with tears. I remember the profound beauty of the ceremony, most of which we had written, and the almost palpable vibe in the room as we repeated our vows. It was the energy of 50 happy people in sync with one another, all of us believing at that moment in the power of love.
So why, after all this perfection, did I spend so many days afterward feeling so depressed? Why did I feel like I had failed somehow? What was suddenly so alluring about my bed? I decided to poll some of my newlywed friends to see how they'd survived their weddings. "I remember waking up the next day and saying, 'That's it?'" my friend Anne said. She designs missiles for the government. "Twelve months of planning and now this, just your basic hangover?"
My younger friend Mary, a Harvard entomologist, had this to say: "It's like when, you know, you kill an ant while it's eating something and its jaws remain clamped on the food. That's how I felt after my wedding. Like my jaws were still clamped onto something." She rubbed her chin. "I had to go down to Chinatown and get herbs."
Melinda, an aspiring actress, said her reaction was identical to how she felt after the closing night's performance of a play, or at the end of a movie shoot. "After spending six months becoming a character, it's not like you can just abandon that person overnight. You need some time to adjust."
Hmmm. So, like, a bride is a character and putting together a wedding is like producing a film? I tested this analogy on my new husband, a producer himself.
"Um," he said, perplexed. "I think you were just tired. That was a lot of work."
My sister said, "Stop trying to analyze so much."
Would that I could. It's an extraordinary event, a wedding. And after it was over I got to thinking that my own life, in comparison, was, well, ordinary. The curtains had closed, the makeup artists and hair stylists had moved on to real clients and I was no longer a bride. I began to suspect that my wedding really was the most elaborate gala I'd ever attend. Never again would I be the center of attention like that. Never again would I be told how beautiful I look for six straight hours. Never again would I get to spend so much time conspiring with my stepmother, an extraordinarily busy woman I adore. Never again will I be allowed to throw away ungodly sums of money on a dress, a headpiece, a makeover. In other words, never again would I get to live a day in the life of Gwyneth Paltrow.
I've heard it said -- mostly by men -- that it's more stressful to be engaged than to be married. It's as though they are saying that it's more challenging to head toward an unknown than to be in the midst of it. And normally I would agree with this as I, too, stress out much more during the journey. But why the exception in this situation? Why did I not show any signs of stress until after I'd said my vows?
I'm thinking it was because of the planning. Planning, in some perverse way, must have helped to alleviate some of my stress. Granted, the planning produced small anxieties of its own, but nothing I couldn't handle. That bridal checklist, asinine as it was, provided a series of tasks I had to accomplish -- tasks that were logical and sequenced. As I moved through the list, it gave me a sense of accomplishment and forward motion that I guess my fianci didn't feel. Those not involved in concrete issues like what hors d'oeuvres to serve have more time to dwell on the abstracts. My soon-to-be husband, for example, walked around for months holding his head and saying, "My God! What have I done?" while I concentrated on Martha Stewart Living, which told me I must wrap fresh moss around my centerpieces to give them a rustic look.
It wasn't until after the dress had been put away, the moss donated to the compost and our bank accounts dredged that the searing reality of what I'd just done really hit me: I'd gotten ma-ma-married. I would remain married for the rest of my life. I think it was the enormity of this concept that kept me in bed.
"You could have avoided all of this post-nuptial depression stuff if you'd done one thing," my friend Judith, the med student, said over the telephone. I expected her to recommend a chemical cure like Zoloft or Xanax.
"You should have taken a honeymoon right away," she said.
Ah, yes, the honeymoon. I thought of all those advertisements in the backs of the bridal magazines showing vibrant, energetic, and incredibly evenly-tanned couples riding horseback or frolicking in the sea. The looks on their faces always suggest a smoldering passion, as if they'd just left the heart-shaped bedroom or are on their way back. Too bad there were always about 800 of these ads beckoning you to choose among 800 luscious destinations.
"I just figured having to plan a honeymoon on top of everything else would have added to the stress," I said.
"You could have used a travel agent," said Judith. "Don't you live in New York? Don't you people pay other people to stress out for you?"
"Well yes, but ... " I started to think of my friends' photo albums and realized their honeymoon pictures were nothing like the honeymoons of advertisements. No, they seemed to have spent most of their days passed out on beach towels. "Don't you just end up taking your post-nuptial depression with you to some place expensive?"
"Some place tropical," Judith said. "And of course you take it with you, but if you drink lots of piqa coladas, you won't notice it as much."
Let it be known: The doctor has spoken.
Friday, August 13, 2010
I’ve been to many a dog-funeral (including a Buddhist sukhavati for my own beloved dog Wallace...and I do plan to write about this someday, when I have the time), but never before have I brought my own dog to a funeral. Not until this week, that is.
It wasn’t like Chloe (the dog) was invited. Nor had a planned to bring her, but circumstances were such that I had to rush back to Massachusetts to make it to the service on time, and I had to bring Chloe, because I did not have time to find a sitter. I thought I would be able to leave her in the car during the service, or at least tie her up outside the church, with a dish of water, a marrow bone, and a copy of Cat Fancy magazine. But the church had no trees. And it was ninety degrees in the shade.
So I really had no choice, right? I must confess I was nervous about this decision. A) the funeral service had already begun by the time I arrived, which meant I risked walking in the wrong door, and finding myself at the front of the church instead of the back, thereby revealing to all the mourners my possible lapse in tact, propriety, and judgment. Churches are always confusing like that—especially old New England churches, which seem to have dozens of entrances and no signs.
So that was risk A.
Risk B was that the funeral was being held at a Catholic church, and if I recall correctly Catholics don’t believe that animals have souls, right? So would they allow a being without a soul into their chapels? Would they allow me, a Buddhist who sings Hindu and Sikh chants, and practices Native American ceremonies, and believes in One God/dess Many Paths? And who believes that not only do dogs have souls, but that some of them are more advanced than we humans? (I was raised Catholic, by the way, which by Law allows me to poke fun at this institution)
Well, there was only one way to find out. I put Chloe on a close “heel” and entered through the hallowed doors. If lightning stuck, I’d know dogs weren’t allowed at St. Joseph’s.
If lightning did not strike, and no clouds parted (revealing a hand pointing its finger of judgment at me a la Michelangelo), well, groovy.
Chloe is an exceptionally well-trained, well-behaved dog, by the way—I knew that would work in our favor. Plus, the woman whose funeral mass we were celebrating was a life-long dog lover. As was her husband, who had passed seven months prior.
We entered. And found ourselves at the back of the church. Excellent. No one noticed our entrance; the second reading had already begun and people were lost in their own thoughts—of Jane and all the goodness and kindness she had spread through the world.
I thought how Chloe was a good and kind being too. I thought of my best high school friend, sitting way up front, mourning the sudden loss of her mother. And of her father. And of her beloved, beloved dog Lydia, who had died in April. My friend had endured a lot of loss in the past seven months. And yet she sat up there with her shoulders straight and her spine erect and poised. She has always been a graceful woman. So was her mother. I said my silent goodbyes to Jane and Bill, and said a few prayers for my friend. I even said a few prayers for my long-departed dog Wallace, and asked him to keep an eye out for Lydia, who still might not be used to life beyond the beyond.
As I had this thought, my dog Chloe wagged her tail.
And the lightning did not strike.
This is when I finally cried—and how good and sweet life can be, and yet so sad at the same time. I guess you can’t have one without the other. Until you leave this world. Death didn’t seem so bad. Neither did life. Not with a dog by your side.
Anyway, I am starting to go off on mystical tangents when I am supposed to be writing about my dog.
After the service ended, we all stood, and the family filed out of the church, preceded by the priests. The first one swung an urn of incense back and forth, filling the aisles with the scent of frankincense. The second one walked piously, with his hands folded around his Bible. This second priest made a point to make eye contact with all the mourners and because I was at the very back of the church I knew I would be one of the last. My dog stood at my side, partially hidden from view. I worried again what the priest would think—if I had committed some grave cardinal sin. (I would have known this, perhaps, if I had paid attention in Sunday School, but who does that?)
I backed up a bit, as if to shield the dog from view. But then she sneezed. Incense does that to her. The second priest looked over, to find the source of the ground-level sneeze, and thereby saw my dog. She wagged her tail at him and moved forward to say hello. He smiled in a kind and loving way.
All God’s creatures, I thought.
My friend’s entire family smiled too as they passed. And I like to think that my dog brought them some sort of comfort on this day of mourning. That the dog reminded them of their own family dogs, of the dogs their parents had raised and loved. Of love itself. For that is what dogs are: love. On four legs.
So in the end, no one complained about the presence of my large furry spaniel. She was even welcomed to come to the post-funeral reception. There, the young grandchildren clambered about her, bringing her water and pieces of fried chicken, rubbing her belly, laughing at the way she squirmed and smiled when she wagged her tail.
It was heartwarming, to say the least. Especially when my friend’s 6-year old daughter, Clara, said to my friend: “Mommy, Grandma is with Grandpa in heaven now, right?”
My friend answered yes.
“And Lydia is there, too?”
“Yes, Lydia is there, too.”
“Good,” Clara said.
And it was good. She ran up to my dog and gave her a hug.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
This is a cross-post from my blog on thebark.com
Soothing Songs for the Anxious Pup
How sound healing can help calm your dog
For the past few years, I’ve been moonlighting as a sound healer and also a kirtan walla. (Kirtan is a lively form of call-and-response chanting that originated in India thousands of years ago). Because this is a dog-related blog, I won’t go into too much detail about the human benefits of sacred sound and sound healing; suffice to say your dog can benefit too.
Back in 1998, before I had even begun to study sacred sound, I happen to notice that certain music had an unusually calming effect on my dog Wallace. (Wallace is my former beloved Spaniel, known to many Bark readers as the star of Rex and the City.)
There we were, the dog and I, sitting in our cramped Lower East Side apartment on a swelteringly hot summer night, wishing we were on another planet--one with air conditioning and more reasonable rents--and listening, as a consolation prize, to “New Sounds,” excellent hour-long music program on WNYC radio.
New Sounds is one of those programs that really can transport you to another planet, because the host, John Schaefer, always manages to find such spectacularly, ethereal music--the kind that transcends time, space, and the mundane.
Anyway,the feature CD of that evening was Canticles of Ecstasy by Hildegard Von Bingen, sung by the vocal ensemble Sequentia. Hildegard was a twelfth-century German mystic who began receiving ecstatic visions at age three and was sent to a convent at age eight. There, she began composing angelic canticles, said to have been channeled directly from the Divine.
I noticed Hildegard’s magic immediately--not only in the way it seemed to pulse through my body with a pure white light, but in the way my dog reacted. He was a Setter as well as a Spaniel mix, which basically meant that he never stayed still--not even in sleep. He was constantly pacing, sniffing, snuffling, hunting, flushing, pointing, galloping, grunting or, at the very least, panting--in a way that could get annoying in a hot NYC apartment. In his sleep he would woof, flex his paws, twitch his nostrils, and sometimes even groan in frustration--at not ever being able to catch that rabbit, perhaps.
But once Hildegard started playing, Wallace actually lay down--he rarely did that. Then he placed his head between his paws and let out a huge, pre-nap sigh. He stretched, one leg at a time, and positioned his body in perfect repose.
He knew I was watching him. I often stared at him, because he was so beautiful, and because I didn't have much else to do in those days of stunted writing.
And I could tell he was trying to keep his eyes open in that way dogs do, when they want to take a nap but also want to make sure they don’t miss out on anything exciting I might do at any second.
But by Sequentia's third canticle his eyes had lolled back into his head and he was out.
An ecstatic trance, perhaps? Would he re-emerge from this slumber speaking in tongues? Or at least in Latin?
Meanwhile, Sequentia sang Spiritus Sanctus Vivificans Vite, the high soprano notes of ecstasy soaring up to the ceiling.
My dog slept an entire hour. His breathing was so deep and slow I could barely see his rib cage moving. He didn’t once twitch or woof. And his muscles were completely relaxed.
By the time the program was over, I knew I was on to something. I called my then-husband immediately and suggested he pick up a copy of the CD on his way home from work.
Our lives changed after that. We had more freedom to actually leave the apartment once in a while, without having to worry about our overly-anxious dog. Our neighbors got so used to the sound of Quia Ergo Femina Mortem Instruxit drifting sweetly into the hallways that they began to get worried if it wasn’t playing.
Wallace’s entire temperament seemed to change--slowly but surely--in the same way my temperament would change, years later, when I myself starting singing and composing my own ecstatic chants.
Funny where life leads us.
Funny that sometimes we don’t even realize we’re being led.
We’re too busy trying to find new ways to improve the lives of our dogs.
And in the process, we improve ours. Because somehow, in some convoluted way, the fact that I was able to observe the effects of sound healing on my dog led me, many years later, to practice on myself.
But getting back to dogs: In 2004, after Wallace had passed and my marriage had disintegrated, I found myself adopting a new dog, Chloe. She's that Spaniel pictured above, with one of her one-night stands. (We can't even remember that Boxer's name, but boy was he fun!)
ANyway, Chloe had extreme separation anxiety when I first adopted her. In fact, she’d already had five homes in the first six months of her life, because her anxiety was so bad. Inexperienced dog owners simply couldn’t handle her whining, barking, drooling, chewing, escaping, etc... But I knew I could handle her. Because I had experience. And marrow bones. And Hildegard.
I played the Canticles of Ecstasy for Chloe around the clock. And within two weeks her separation anxiety had completely vanished.
Fast-forward to the present, and here I am with the Calmest Dog on the Planet. Pretty impressive for a Border Collie mix, I’d say. People always ask me: How do you do it? And I give three answers: clicker training, holistic nutrition and sound healing.
I’d say, on average, I play sacred music about eight hours each day. I believe this music purifies the space, and creates healing vibrations that re-align both me and my dog on a daily basis.
Sound is vibration, and our physical bodies respond to vibration--whether you believe it or not. Fast-paced, frenetic noise will increase our heartbeats and make us feel, well, frenetic. Erratic music will make us feel erratic. But soft, slow, rhythmic music will calm us. Drums beat at certain cycles can lower the blood pressure and induce theta states of mind. You might be saying, “Well, duh, this isn’t rocket science,” but actually it is.
Science has now proven that certain sounds have healing effects on certain parts of the body. The yogis and sages have known this for millennia, of course, but it takes these Western doctors a while to catch up with things. Now these Western doctors are witnessing cancerous tumors going into remission from treatments with Tibetan Singing Bowls, and bi-polar patients reaching a point of equilibrium by listening to a sacred gong.
So why couldn’t a dog with separation anxiety benefit from soothing music?
Why not give it a try? It’s easy and your dog benefits greatly. I swear even my house plants look healthier from the nonstop sacred music.
My recommended picks of soothing songs for doggy snoozing are:
Canticles of Ecstasy by Sequentia
Gong and Singing Bowl Meditation by Scott Kennedy
Ultimate Om by Jonathan Goldman
Lalitha Ashtrotram by Craig Pruess
Atlantean Crystal Temple by Steve Halpern
My dog would second these opinions, but she’s currently asleep.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
This essay appeared in the Bark magazine in March 2009. Now that enough time has passed, I can admit that the Friend I referred to was my own self.
Blind Date Faux Paw
Rule #1: You can’t fake dog love.
Lee Harrington | 31 Mar 2009
Does he or doesn't he really love dogs?
This story comes from a friend who wishes to remain anonymous on the off chance her former blind date reads this. (We are hoping enough time has passed that said Blind Date will no longer be Googling my friend). They didn’t hit it off, you see, because Blind Date committed the unpardonable act of pretending to be a dog person. He knew my friend loved dogs, and he knew my friend was attractive, and single, so he lied—-all in the name of trying to get into her pants.
We are not impressed.
The setting of the story: a holiday party, last December. My friend loves holiday parties, so she readily accepted an invitation from a man she barely knew. She had just moved to a certain rural town near a certain hip city, and had not, to date, made any new friends. She thought this party would be a grand and fun entry into her new life. Plus, the man claimed that he loved dogs.
The evening included bluegrass Christmas music, nutmeggy eggnog spiced with cognac, and cool hippy-types who wore their grey hair long. But let us fast-forward to the moment when Date invited Friend to sit next to him on a sofa near the fire. He patted a cushion, which prompted the host’s dog—a shaggy, little Wheaton-mix—to run over and leap onto the vacant spot.
Friend said: “How cute!”
Date? He pushed the dog to the floor.
As you can imagine, Friend made a decision right then and there never to see Date again. He tried to snuggle with her on the couch, but Friend snuggled with the dog instead. Date repositioned his body on the sofa so that his legs and arms touched Friend’s, but she kept moving further and further away, to the point where she was almost sitting on some fiddle player’s lap.
It was a long night for Friend. She’s typically not a grudge-holder, except when someone roughs up a puppy.
On the drive home, Date—perhaps sensing Friend’s disappointment—tried to regale her with what he thought were amusing dog stories: the time he tried to put his own dog to sleep and it took three days for the poison to kick in; the time a farmer shot his daughter’s dog and how he and the farmer ended up becoming good friends. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, but my friend found none of this funny.
(Date concluded the evening by telling Friend she had no sense of humor and that she needed to ‘loosen up,’ but that she was still a hot babe and he’d be interested in sleeping with her.
I love the ‘but’ part. As if being hot somehow made up for all her perceived character flaws.)
Anyway, quite a few novels and movies have been written about such scenarios—about men who pretend to be dog people just to get into a woman’s pants. But in those fictional accounts, the men usually end up falling in love with the dogs and everyone lives happily ever after. In this case, a true fraud was exposed. But my friend was at least grateful her date had exposed his true self before the relationship progressed any further. Dog love is not something you can fake. So fellas, don’t even try.
Lee Harrington is the author of the best-selling memoir Rex and the City: A Memoir of a Woman, a Man, and a Dysfunctional Dog (Villard, 2006). Her novel, Nothing Keeps a Frenchman From His Lunch, is forthcoming from Random House in 2010. She is working on both the second volume of her Rex and the City memoir and a screenplay version of the first volume. Lastly, she is the lead singer of an all-female Who tribute band, Pictures of Lily, and, late at night she blogs about dogs at www.emharrington.com.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Rex in the City XXIV: Board Approved
Originally appearing in Issue #41, Mar/Apr 2007
It’s always stressful to throw your first adult party, and it can be even more stressful if you have a really hyper, poorly trained (or rather, imperfectly trained) dog. It was the year 2000 and Ted and I had just moved to a 350-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn. This was a big step up for us, given that our previous apartment was only 300 square feet. You might be shocked at that number, but we were overjoyed to have a bedroom door that could actually close (or slam, as the case may be) because there were no bureaus or beds blocking the way. It was indeed cause to celebrate.
So we decided to throw a housewarming party. Now, long-time readers of this column may recall that, when we first adopted Rex, three years prior to this party, he came to us fear-aggressive, anxious and mistrustful of humans, one of whom had abused him cruelly. With lots of loving care and training, we managed to “cure” him of his aggressions, but there is one thing you can’t cure an English Setter of, and that is being an English Setter, which means exuberant and energetic— and in a 350sf apartment, “energetic” can translate into “hyper.” Plus, only one-third of our guests would qualify as “dog people”—the rest of them liked to wear black and keep their clothing fur-free.
My first thought was to send Rex off to doggie day-care for the morning. (Because we were now officially adults, we decided to throw a brunch rather than a big smoky keg party with Jell-O shots and bags of chips.)
But Ted, having been sent off to boarding school as a pre-teen, said this could cause undue psychological damage.
“How’s he going to know we didn’t invite him to our party?” I said.
“Dogs always know. Plus, he’ll smell the remnants of 80 people … and quiche.”
So the dog was invited.
Then something—an article in the New York Times, perhaps?—gave me an idea: Sedate the dog. Now, before you throw this magazine down in disgust and call me irresponsible, hear me out: people do this in New York, you see, when they need to bring their dogs before potential co-op boards for “review.” A co-op board, whose job it is to make sure that you are socially acceptable and financially secure, can reject you for any number of reasons—maybe your daughter’s tongue piercing would be more appropriate at a co-op in Tribeca than one on the Upper East Side, or maybe you are a world-famous entertainer who happened to have published nude photographs of yourself a few years back. And I’d heard more and more stories of people getting rejected because the boards didn’t approve of their dogs.
Then and now, dogs often get a bad rap in New York. Every week, it seems, the local papers publish articles on this-or-that bad dog doing such-and-such, and as a result, co-op boards have become more and more strict about what kinds of dogs they allow into their hallowed towers, or if they allow them at all. Board members worry that dogs will bark all day; pee in the elevators; jump on strangers; or, in the spring, when the rain is at its worst, shake themselves off right next to a famous socialite and ruin her $4,000 Fendi baguette handbag.
Whatever. We all know there is no such thing as a “bad dog.” Just a poorly trained or improperly treated one. But New Yorkers have learned to take extra precautions in their “dog interviews” with the co-op board. Elite groomers are paid hundreds of dollars to triple-bathe the dogs, administer hot-oil conditioners, spend an hour on the blow-outs and then spritz the dogs with special aromatherapy oils, like bergamot or lavender, which are said to lull board members into a state of complacence and well-being.
Or people will spend $1,500 for five one-hour sessions with a dog trainer who specializes in the dog interview. In these sessions, the dog learns to sit, hold a down-stay and shake hands with the president of the co-op board, all while counting out his/her guardian’s income with thumps of his/her tail (say, one thump for every hundred thousand).
Then there was the couple in Tribeca who had a rather nasty and very vocal Jack Russell Terrier who didn’t like shoes, and because most people in the lobbies of luxury co-ops wear shoes, he was constantly nipping peoples’ ankles. They knew they could not bring him to the interview because all the board members would be wearing shoes. And so, at the last minute, they traded their dog for an imposter, a look-a-like JRT from a different litter. This imposter licked the president’s face, shook her hand, then went into a down-stay and literally smiled and thumped her tail at each board member who spoke. They were unanimously approved.
What I found most shocking were the stories I heard about people sedating their dogs with Valium. I guess, if you can’t afford the $300-an-hour training fee, Valium is available for a few dollars (or nothing, if you steal them from someone else’s medicine cabinet at their first housewarming party). But still. I was horrified. I was horrified and yet a little seed had been planted in my head.
And I know it sounds awful and irresponsible to even consider sedating a dog for a party, but I was an idiot back then, and lazy, and had not yet discovered clicker-training, which works so well I probably could have clicker-trained Rex into donning a tuxedo and mixing drinks.
“You can’t give him drugs,” Ted said. “What kind of mother are you? He’s fine the way he is.”
“I know he’s fine. He’s perfect. This will make him more perfect.”
“But this isn’t a co-op interview,” Ted added. “It’s a party for our friends.”
“It’s just that not all of our friends love dogs the way we do. Besides, I’m not giving him Valium. I’ve giving him herbs.”
A friend had recommended Rescue Remedy, which she said was the vodka martini of the dog world. It wouldn’t sedate him, she said; it would just “chill him out.” They use it for dogs in shock, she said, and for those who are terrified of thunder.
Now, I’m a fan of chillin’, so I used myself as the test subject before dosing up the dog. Just a few drops in a glass of water, or straight onto the tongue, and lo, I didn’t feel drugged or sedated, just oddly blasé and unhurried. I felt I had discovered the New Age “Mother’s Little Helper.” In fact, I liked it so much I decided to give myself a triple dose for the party. (Things like hosting parties stress me out, and Martha Stewart’s magazine is to blame, because her level of perfection is one that I can never seem to meet.)
“Want some?” I said to Ted, half an hour before our guests were to arrive. I held out the little glass vial which was, I realized, the same size as a syringe. Ted shook his head. “Bad mother,” he said, in the same teasing voice he used when he said “Bad dog.” I placed four drops of the Mother’s Little Helper on top of Rex’s head.
We served what adults are supposed to serve at housewarming parties: white wine, tiny quiches, fancy sparkling waters and a gruyère fondue. And we also served up an uncannily well-behaved dog. He’d been to the groomer and smelled like lavender oil, and his fur was silky and oh-so-white. People kept commenting on how beautiful he was, and how sweet and calm. There was a $16-per-pound wedge of Spanish goat cheese on the low coffee table that he didn’t even bother to sniff, let alone scarf up. And he didn’t climb up onto the windowsill and bark at passersby on the sidewalk. He did not once try to jump on the furniture because it was more effort than he could expend. Mostly, he wanted to lie on the floor and receive his well-deserved belly-scratches. “I wish I had a dog like that,” one of Ted’s friends said, and I wanted to tell her that this wasn’t a dog like that, but I was feeling just so blissfully blasé.
Throughout the party, I’d notice Rex resting his head on the knee of my editor, or sleeping at the feet of Ted’s boss, and was pleased to see that he hadn’t slobbered on her shoes. In fact, he hadn’t slobbered on anyone, or jumped, or barked. And for the first time, I knew what it was like to have a mellow dog—to have the sort of dog a co-op board would approve.
“Didn’t people, in the olden days, used to give their children brandy to help them sleep?” I said to Ted after the party.
“Yes,” Ted said. “In their milk.”
“I am a bad mother,” I said.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Ted said. We took Rex to Prospect Park as a reward. The “remedy” had worn off at that point, and he was back to his hyper, happy, hunting-dog self. We let him off-leash and watched as he chased after squirrels, manically followed scent trails, crashed through bushes and leapt over rocks, and actually bit the base of an oak tree, seemingly determined to bring it down because there was a squirrel’s nest up there. “He certainly doesn’t seem to have a hangover,” Ted said. “Maybe I’ll try this herb myself.”
“Oh, you should,” I said, perhaps a little too quickly (because what wife doesn’t want to sedate her husband once in a while?).
Ted just raised an eyebrow and called for the dog. He came bounding back to us, covered with burrs and mud and panting with bliss. So much for the $70 trip to the groomer and the aromatherapy oil. He seemed positively delighted with himself and his condition. And we were delighted, too. “Perfect dogs probably get really boring,” I said to Ted.
“Perfect people, too.”
Years later, one of our guests became the president of our co-op board when our building went co-op. Rex didn’t have to go to the dog interview—he had already passed.