Wednesday, August 19, 2009

La Tarte Tropezienne (the pastry, not me!)

In Search of the Perfect Tarte
by Lee Harrington

When I told friends I was going to spend four weeks in St. Tropez last summer, more than one of my foodie friends told me I must try the Tarte Tropezienne—which was described to me as a giant brioche filled to the heavens with a creamy vanilla custard. This sounded like a dream come true. As I child I loved pudding—homemade butterscotch pudding, or bread pudding, or crème brulee, were the best—but mostly we ate packaged pudding, the Jell-O Brand. I liked vanilla and my brother, ten months older, liked chocolate, and my father told us that as toddlers we would sit facing each other in twin highchairs and smear our respective puddings all over our faces, smiling in ecstasy.

So naturally, finding and sampling this so-called Tarte Tropezienne went to the top of my “list of things to do” while I visited St. Tropez. That’s what one does when one travels to France—you get obsessed with pastries. And wine. And bread. And olives. And cheese. Plus, we New Yorkers tend to become obsessed with finding “the best” (primarily so that we can go back and tell our friends at dinner parties that we found “the best” goat cheese or the best rosemary-and-olive fogasse or the best early-season figs. )

But getting back to my quest for The Best Tarte Tropezienne...

The first sample I managed to track down came from a street-cart vendor at a flea market in St. Maxime. There they were, stacked in neat rows behind a glass case, all perfectly round and golden. Tarte Tropezienne come in three sizes, small (the size of a whoopee pie) medium (one generous slice of the grande) and grande, a bulging behemoth pie the size of a dinner plate. I ordered a mini, thinking I could work my way up to the, if you’ll forgive the pun, grand finale. But I was frankly disappointed by my street cart tarte. The brioche was too sweet (they aren’t supposed to be) and dry, and the filling—in taste and texture—was more like cake frosting than pudding.

The good news is my second favorite thing to eat as a child was frosting, or better, a frosting sandwich, of the excruciatingly-sweet variety, the kind that came from can. When my father wasn’t looking I spread a big gob of canned chocolate frosting on two slices of Wonder bread and ate this for lunch. The St. Maxime tarte was not much more than my childhood frosting sandwich, so I wasn’t all that impressed. I assumed I had been duped—that the tarte wouldn’t be the “best thing I had ever tasted” as a friend had predicted. Or maybe I had simply made an error in judgment by sampling my first one from a street cart.

“Non, non, non,” my French hosts said when I told them I had abandoned my Quest for the Perfect Tarte after only one try. “Those street cart venders, they are no good. It is merde.” (The French always have strong opinions about their pastries.) They told me I must try the village patisserie in Grimaud. They told me that this patisserie, called, simply Le Patisserie, makes only one tarte per day, for the tourists. “All the slices would be gone by lunchtime,” they said with a smirk. I made sure I was the first in line at seven in the morning, so that I could receive the first slice. The filling of the tarte was perfect – a creamy, dense custard with just the right amount of sweetness. But the brioche was coated with confectioners sugar, and I kept inhaling the powder and choking every time I took a bite. Hours later, when I finally got a chance to see myself in a mirror, I saw that I had powder under my nose, like a coke addict.

“But of course,” said another French friend. “That village, it is not so sophisticated. And their bread is no good. A real tarte is glazed with coarse sugar. What you ate is an imposter.” They recommended the aptly named “Tarte Tropezienne”— a famous chain of patisseries, whose secret recipe for their brioche and custard is “protected” (the French word for “patented”). According to Albert Dufrene, the sales manager for the Tarte Tropezienne chain, the pastry originated on the set of Trouffaut’s famous St. Tropez film: And God Created Woman in 1955. A young baker named Alexandre Micka was the head caterer for the crew, and each day he made them a special cream cake that came from a recipe passed on by his Polish grandmother. As legend has it, Brigitte Bardot was so besotted with Mr. Micka’s cake that she insisted that he “protect” the recipe. But to earn “protection,” a pastry must have a name. Therefore Bardot christened the cake the “Tarte Tropezienne.” And thus the chain was born.

I invited my hosts to accompany me to the famous patisserie closest to our villa, but they, like many St. Tropez residents, admitted that they never partook of their famous local attraction. “The tarte is too sweet,” they said. “It is for the tourists.” But I was not afraid of sweetness, or of being pegged as a tourist, so I hopped on my Vespa and sped off to the nearest Tarte Tropezienne.

I was not sorry. This time I ordered the medium size portion – basically one quarter of a large-sized tarte. The brioche was perfect—moist and feathery, with a slightly crisp egg yolk glaze and a generous sprinkling of granulated sugar. But the filling—an inch and a half thick—was a bit too pudding-y for even this pudding fanatic. The Grimaud custard was better. But the Tarte Tropezienne brioche took first place. And, as with any burgeoning addiction, I had to keep going for reasons I can’t even explain. I was becoming more and more determined to find the Ultimate Tarte.

At the Hasselbach bakery in Antibes—an Alsatian boulangerie and patisserie on the Rue de la Republique, I found a heavenly tarte—with a moist, crisply glazed brioche and a perfect custard. Also in Antibes is the Au Palais de la Friandise—a famous Parisian chocolatier and confectioner who also have a store on the Champs d’Elysees in Paris. By then I had been in France long enough to know that there was a big distinction between a boulangerie/patisserie and an exclusive patisserie. The former served peasant bread. Enough said. The latter produced pastries and tarts and cakes that looked as if they had been prepped and shellacked by a food stylist. The Tarte Tropezienne at Au Palais de la Friandise was so perfectly round and shiny it looked porcelain. At 13 Euros, the Palais’ tarte was the most expensive I had encountered, but its rich, creamy, butter-colored custard proved to me that sometimes money can buy happiness.

Then yet another friend told me of yet another winner, in the old town section of St. Tropez, near the port. I thought if I sampled just one more I would be satisfied, and not gain too much weight. Here again I encountered the moist brioche, the heavenly custard and was starting to conclude, just as there is no such thing as a bad piece of pizza, on the Riviera there is no such thing as a “bad” tarte.

After seven straight days of Tarte-hunting, I had to face the fact that my jeans felt tighter. And that my stomach had developed a rather pudding-y pudge. It was all in the name of research, I told myself. I felt satisfied that I had achieved my childhood dream.

Tarte Tropezienne:
Cogolin centre :
Rue Beausoleil - 04 94 54 42 59

Sainte-Maxime :
112 Avenue Charles de Gaulle - RN 98 - 04 94 96 01 65
et Marché Couvert - 4 rue Fernand Bessy - 04 94 96 75 34

Saint-Tropez :
9 bd Louis-Blanc - 04 94 97 19 77
36 rue Georges Clemenceau - 04 94 97 71 42


Two locations:
rue de la Republique, ANTIBES

Au la Palais de la Friandise
50, rue de la Republique, ANTIBES

La Patisserie
4 rue de Foux

Monday, August 10, 2009

Postcard from the Ironman France Triathlon

I am not a triathlete. I cannot even come close to being a triathlete, because of a physical limitation that forbids me from jumping up and down, or even standing for more than two hours at a time. (I have a rare and freaky spinal disorder that also affects my brain.) So I have always been somewhat jealous of supremely physical people. And also very intrigued. What drives an endurance athlete? I often ask myself. What would compel a person to compete in an Ironman?
I mean, I, too, saw Julie Moss crawl toward the finish line at Hawaii in 1982. And I am aware that her dramatic finish has actually inspired many an athlete to try the sport. But why would someone be inspired at the sight of someone incapacitated by self-imposed fatigue? I began to wonder: Are all triathletes insane?
Now, one could argue that a non-physical person such as myself can never truly understand the mind of the hyper-physical, and that therefore I shouldn’t even try. One could argue that I should just sit on my ass in front of ESPN and keep my mouth shut. But part of me believes that if I could understand what motivates and drives an Ironman triathlete, I could unlock some secret to the meaning of life.
In fact, I wanted so much to understand the triathlete that, back in 2001, I decided to base my second novel on a female triathlete training for an Ironman. I gave this character a sound body and a broken heart. And I gave the book the title Nothing Keeps a Frenchman From His Lunch, (which has nothing to do with triathlons and takes forty minutes to explain.)
Thus I began my obsession with triathletes—a field study of the species, if you will. I began to watch triathlons on television. I interviewed athletes. I subscribed to Triathlete magazine. My intrigue morphed into true obsession, and I now have a 500-page book. But as of last May I still had not participated in an Ironman, and that made me feel like a fraud (at least from a novelist’s standpoint). So I decided that the next best way to experience an Ironman would be to volunteer at one. So, I contacted the Ironman France race coordinators, explained to them (in my passable French) my quest, and was immediately hired as a volunteer. I also approached an editor at Triathlete magazine, who agreed to commission a piece based on my experiences as a volunteer at Ironman France. And thus I found myself, in June of 2006, at Nice.
Herewith is my experience, in three legs:
The first thing I noticed at the swim leg was not the otherworldly color of the Mediterranean, or the majesty of the grand Deco hotels that lined the Promenade des Anglaises; no, the first thing I noticed were the men. I’m just going to come right out and say it: they are gods. They are prime specimens of human perfection. All of the triathletes—the men, the women—looked so supremely healthy and pure and fit. Their impossible toned muscles had the perfect proportions of DaVinci’s Vesuvius, and their skin had the flawless, even tans of Ken. Here, I told myself, were bodies and minds free of clutter. Here were examples of what we could all become if we just put our minds to it.
I imagined that if I seized one of the men, and kissed him full on the lips, he would taste like the purest of spring water, the very Fountain of Youth, with just a touch of Gatorade. Lemon/lime. But I held back.
The swimmers had begun to line the shore at around 5:30 and at six, a DJ very suddenly began to blast rap music from about 16 giant speakers. The music was outrageously, uncomfortably loud. From what I could tell, no one was enjoying it. Most people blocked their ears. This made for an odd sea of spectators. The DJ kept shouting “put your hands up in the air” but no one did, because they didn’t want to leave vulnerable their eardrums.
More and more swimmers arrived, all of them I huddled closely together. The DJ was now playing a rap song that was particularly lewd. It didn’t seem appropriate for this event at all, but who was I to say? Maybe this was standard Ironman fare. Maybe the synchronized sounds of a woman’s moans motivated the swimmers. Maybe the volume helped wake everybody up. Or maybe it simply made everyone horny.
Then it occurred to me that maybe everyone already was horny, given the sight of 1100 sublime bodies pressed against one another in shiny black suits.
Maybe that is why hundreds of French spectators lined the stands.
Thankfully, the gun went off, and the athletes thundered into the water, a crush of multi-colored caps. Above them, a helicopter hovered—too closely, I thought, because the wind kept knocking the floats over, and the floats landed on top of swimmers, sending them off-course. A cameraman sat right in the door of the helicopter, his legs dangling off the side. I wondered what would happen if he fell in. And landed on top of the swimmers.
After about an hour, the first swimmer, Hervé Faure emerged. He was breathless, but showed no signs of fatigue. I thought: those rocks must be killing his feet. But swimming two miles seemed like a quick morning dip to these people. I hoped in my next life I would be a distance swimmer, so that I could too walk over rocks like a Hindu swami walking across coals. I hoped I’d be, like these athletes, impervious to pain.
Meanwhile, inside the transition tent, a volunteer slathered sunscreen onto Herve’s shoulders while more male swimmers sprinted past, stripping off their suits. I made a note to ask her how she had gotten that job.

My T1 was to go meet my motorbike driver, who was going to take me along the bike course. (I’d been warned that it might be a bit chaotic finding the driver outside Herballife Village. The French have a reputation for being charmingly disorganized (because everyone wants to be in charge), and the Nice Triathlon is still considered to be “very French.” I don’t know if they can ever live down the fact that, back in the 1983 race, the French gendarmeries—quite nastily, from what I heard—sent all the cyclists in the wrong direction at the beginning of the bike leg, forcing everyone to ride the course in reverse. Riders who had been training for weeks up certain hills and around specific switchbacks suddenly found themselves on an almost unfamiliar course. Then there was the fact that the aid stations didn’t have enough water that year, which resulted in a dehydrated and disoriented Mark Allen weaving across the finish. But the good news is the new race organizers, Triangle, are working hard to iron out the kinks. This year there was plenty of water and nutrition at the plentiful aid stations, and volunteers at every turn and intersection instructing riders where to go.
So, at Herballife Village, after trying to communicate with a lot of French men in helmets who were shouting and waving their hands in the air, I finally found my driver: a soft-spoken young man named Jean-Marc. This was his first time volunteering at the Nice Triathlon, and he had taken the job because he loved the views. Nice is famous for having one of the most spectacular bike LEGS in the sport, and, conversely, one of the toughest. My driver and I immediately headed north, toward St. Jeannet, and once we passed through St. Laurent du Var the roads led unrelentlessly uphill. I pitied the cyclists having to do these climbs.
Then I pitied myself, for my driver was going like 100 miles per hour, and I kept begging and pleading with him to slow down, but to a French man, driving slowly is on par with having yourself castrated. He accelerated around corners, weaved between cars and wide delivery trucks, and generally took my life into his own hands.
We zipped past the middle pack of cyclists, then the leads. We zipped past medieval perched villages with melodic names: Gattieres, Chateauneuf de Grasse. I wanted to lift my head and admire then, or stare in wonder at that aquamarine sea, but that meant I would notice that nothing but a two-foot stone wall separated me from a 250 meter drop. So most of the time I could only stare at the back of Jean-Marc’s helmet and pray.
I wondered if the triathletes were able to enjoy the views. Or if their concentration was such that an image of a medieval perched village where Keith Richards was rumored to have bought a château would have been too distracting. Would such an image pull their minds into the 11th century? Or would it remind them that they were only in St. Paul de Vence, and therefore still had another 140 kilometers to go? Time seemed to stand still in those distant golden villages. I wondered if time stand still for a person on a Category 2 climb.
By this time my driver and I had passed all the cyclists, even past Hervé, and I signaled for Jean Marc to slow down. He didn’t seen to understand the concept of slowing down. The point in a journalist following a race, I explained to him, was to observe the athletes, not leave them in the dust. Plus, I worried that we were freaking all the cyclists out, buzzing past them like that. I requested that we stopped in one of those tiny villages to take a break.
Then an inexplicable thing happened. We stopped outside a cafe, and I went inside to use the bathroom, and when I reemerged a few minutes later Jean-Marc, my driver, was gone. I looked for him and his motorbike everywhere. It seemed impossible that he would have ditched me—I was a journalist after all, and he had been hired to escort said journalist, but after half an hour of searching and pacing and asking other volunteers at the cafe if they had seen a large Frenchman with a bike and a helmet, I had to conclude that he really had left.
For the next few minutes the paranoid part of my brain started to list all the reasons why Jean-Marc had ditched me: Had I inadvertently insulted him somehow using my garbled French? Perhaps, in an attempt at friendly conversation, when I had asked him how long he had been a member of the journalist-driving-team, he misinterpreted my casual question as a criticism of his lack of experience. Or perhaps, in my garbled French, my question had actually translated into: “How long is your member?” Perhaps I had pissed him off by asking him to slow down. French men HATE being told to slow down, especially by American women. (I am allowed to say this because my mother’s family were French.) Perhaps I had clung to his stomach a bit too desperately and had caused him a mal a l’etomache. At any rate; I’d been abandoned.
Using a pay phone, I called the race organizers and one of my colleagues at the triathlon magazine and told them I’d been ditched by my driver. No one could quite believe it, and I had to repeat the story to several people, each one a senior to the former, but eventually it was concluded that another driver should be sent.
As I waited, I ate a Powerbar, I stood on the sidewalk and watched some of the strong, kick-ass women pass. I was thrilled to witness Katya Edwards cruising through the village, to thundering applause. At the press conference, the French moderator had held up a picture of Katya in a bathing suit, sitting on top of an elephant. He referred to her as “La Petite American.” But anyone could see that this woman’s talent was huge. The look on her face was calm and vacant, like that of a woman humming pleasantly while she arranged flowers. Her legs were like rocks.
Soon my new driver, Luc, arrived. His motorbike looked faster than Jean-Marc’s. I honestly considered turning around, going back to the safe flat ground of the Promenade des Anglaises, because I knew it wasn’t’ healthy for my already over-taxed adrenals glands to be producing any more fear-adrenaline. But then Mariska Kramer sped past, looking determined, and I realized the only way to cultivate courage is simply to be brave.
This time, I insisted that the driver go only 30 MPH. The experience was much more pleasurable. The air smelled of honeysuckle flowers and hot dry grass. Cows grazed at the roadside, and many of the villagers had seated themselves in little lawn chairs, offering polite French applause. In Gréolières, even the village priest had come out to cheer on the cyclists. As we sped past him, I couldn’t tell if he was waving or making the sign of the cross. But I imagined that the smiling presence of these villagers must be comforting to a lone rider, who is toiling along wondering why he ever thought to enter this grueling race.
At our slower speed, I was able to observe the riders: heads down, muscles straining, cycling shorts filmed with salt. I had the honor of seeing Marcel Zamora, Gilles Reboul, Francois Chaboud. I felt guilty passing them on the motorbike. They’d all look up at me, and attempt tired smiles, and I wondered if they wished they were me, sitting on my ass, having a very valid excuse as to why I would never, ever have to do an Ironman. And of course no triathlete would really think this. But maybe for a few seconds here and there, you question your decision to put yourself through such torture? When the aid station is miles away, and up ahead is the Col de Vence?
Anyway, the grass is always greener, because a few minutes later I decided I would much rather be a triathlete, battling this course for the next four hours, than be sitting on this motorbike. As soon as my driver saw the Col, with its terrifying Category 2 climbs and hairpin turns, he gleefully sped up again, cutting off a cyclist, on a corner, to pass a truck. This, I imagined, was why he had been volunteering at Nice for ten years. I entered the Realm of Terror again and clung to the sides of the bike with my thighs. I do yoga, so my thighs have some strength. I just hoped I had enough to hold on for the rest of the race.
By then]it had begun to rain, making the already dangerous turns lethal. “Has anyone ever died on this course?” I asked my driver, and no sooner had a said that than we saw a cyclist wipe out. Immediately Luc pulled over and rushed over to the fallen man. We were not allowed to assist him, of course, but the driver asked the cyclist, in French, if he was okay. The cyclist nodded, not seeming to notice the blood pouring out of a seven-inch gash on his leg. He took a swig of water and pushed off. Luc nodded in appreciation as the man rode away. “These people are alone out here,” he said. “We need to take care of them. We need to show them the right way to go.”

My T2 consisted of being able to stand on two legs again and praise the earth. Luc dropped me off at one of the marathon aid stations, where I was to pass out cups of water and clap.
Now, I live in New York City, where the New York Marathon is treated like a block party that happens to be about 40,000 blocks long. Runners pass a funk band playing the theme from “Rocky” on Staten Island, then a bunch of drag queens dressed like Flo Jo in Bedford-Sty. In Manhattan, there might be a gospel choir singing about not giving up, or a team of flamenco dancers saluting you with little silk scarves. Many of the spectators wear costumes, and even some of the runners, too. I’ve seen a marathoner in a tuxedo and, last year, two Scottish men wearing kilts. We all begged of them to show us their undergarments, but they waved us off.
Anyway, this is what I am used to as an endurance-sport spectator: loud, louder, and loudest, and lots of New York accents. And day-glo wigs. The volunteers at this aid station put us New Yorkers to shame.
Consider the group of volunteers who handed out the different colored wrist bands to mark the number of times the runners had done the loop:
Little girls in pink t-shirts handed out the #3 bands; little boys the #2 blue. A group of elderly woman handed out the black bands--#1. And I wondered what the implication of that color was, considering the stereotypical use of pink and blue. Anyway, the girls in pink giggled any time they handed their #3 bands to a particularly sweaty and glistening Adonis. The boys in blue kept trying to slip the bands onto the runners’ wrists as the runners passed (rather than just handing the bands out), but the boys missed a lot, which meant the runners had to stop and lose a few seconds. The boys would then snigger and scold one another for dropping the bands.
My favorite volunteer at this station was an elderly woman named Octavia, with long grey hair and perfectly manicured toenails, which she had painted gold. She jogged up to each of the runners as they approached, jovially mimicking their gaits, and blew them kisses as she handed them their black bands. Her face was wrinkled—probably from years of sun and smoking—but her eyes were merry and young. She made each and every runner smile. Later, I learned that she was 72 years old, and that she had been volunteering at the race for three years. “My grandson is an Ironman,” she told me. “I come here for him.” I loved the way the French said “Ironman”—kind of revving up on the “r.” Octavia seemed to be the quintessential volunteer.
Further down, near the water station, three adolescent girls in knee-length IRONMAN FRANCE t-shirts handed out wet sponges and offered to spray the runners with a garden hose. “De l’eau, de l’eau!” they chanted. Their jeans were soaked to the skin and they wore no shoes. One particularly exuberant girl kept squirting the runners square on their faces, often into their eyes. Most of the runners laughed, but the girl eventually got scolded by Octavia when she accidentally blasted the “nutrition table” and soaked all the pound cake.
After two hours I had to sit down. My spine was done for the day (as were my volunteer duties). Meanwhile, some of these athletes would keep going for fourteen hours. I sat on the sidewalk and drank an electrolyte-replacement-beverage and watched the runners stop at the aid station to contemplate the soggy pound cake and then take a Powerbar instead. And I wondered why some of them were not running, or even walking at a slow pace. DID THEY NOT CARE ABOUT THEIR TIMES? On TV they are always running and gulping, but here, at Nice, the runners lingered at the buffet.
Then it occurred to me that stopping to eat was a very European thing to do. The French think it is gauche to eat while walking. They are appalled at how many Americans speed along the sidewalks, dodging around one another while they snarf down sandwiches and pizza or even Chinese food. With chopsticks.
And to drink a coffee out of a to-go cup? Encroyable.
Suddenly I admired the leisurely pace with which the athletes took refreshments. Such good manners. And such a perfect opportunity for me to admire their glutes.
It was after noon. The sun was now straight above us. The athletes cast no shadows, and the sky was so blue it seemed surreal. I watched the way the heat rose off the pavement in waves, and thought of how they said it was ten times worse at Hawaii. Again, I marveled at the masochistic tendencies of these folks. A German age grouper passed very close to me, leaning on a fellow countryman for support. I clapped wildly and told him he was doing great.
Now, I have had the privilege of doing a Native American sweat lodge with a Lakota medicine man. It’s possible to say that the heat inside a sweat lodge is even worse than it is at Hawaii. Yet I’d have to say that that sweat lodge was the most profound thing I have ever experienced. The heat, although unbearable, managed to cook away all my worries and emotions. It cooked away my past, and my future, and left me in the glorious Here and Now. I felt as if I had no baggage—just this moment; I felt like a pure and absolute human being—a human being as we are meant to be: a spirit inside a body, uncluttered with stupid thoughts.
That sweat lodge high lasted four hours. And then I had to go do laundry, and pick up my car at the garage, and agonize over the fact that my imaginary husband Viggo Mortensen had not yet called.
So I wondered: is this what a triathlete feels after s/he has swim 3.8 kilometers, cycled 180 kilometers, and run 26 miles? Are they willing to put themselves through nine, ten, seventeen hours of torture to experience that four hours of bliss?
Maybe it’s that the bliss for a triathlete lasts longer. If you do the math, and say that one hour in a sweat lodge equals 4 hours of bliss, that would mean then 14 hours of Ironman equals 56 hours. Or perhaps, dear readers, your bliss lasts a lifetime.
As I sat there, Emily Deppe jogged past on her sturdy legs. My own legs, particularly the adductors, were still trembling from having clutched the sides of that motorbike in terror. I was surprised that my biceps did not ache from lifting a digital recording device to record details. I shouted to Emily that she kicked ass, girl! And told myself that maybe strength and courage, fear and limitations, are all relative. Still, there’s a reason they use the word “humbling” a lot in all those triathlon books and magazines.
The helicopter was hovering above the finish line now, which meant the leading runners were closing in. I pushed myself off the sidewalk and limped toward the finish line, wondering if someone would mistake me for an Ironwoman. Um, no.
I have heard, again and again, that there is nothing like crossing the finish line at an Ironman, but I am here to tell you there is nothing like watching you finish either. I saw on your faces relief, disbelief, and abject joy. I saw an infant being passed into one man’s sweaty arms; I saw a group of French cheerleaders in fishnets practically pig pile a particularly hunky Austrian man. Then I thought I saw, in a flash, the Meaning of Life. I know this might sound hokey, but standing there at the finish, I felt I was part of your glory, even though I have never walked in your shoes. Or swum, or rode, or ran.
Next, a woman collapsed into her husband’s arms with tears of joy; another did a little victory dance. That DJ was screeching indecipherably in French. Then someone in an Ipswich shirt gave me—me!—a high five. For a moment I vowed not to wash that hand.
Eventually I had to tear myself away from the finish line. Same story: my spine. It was mid-afternoon at that point, and I knew the final finisher might not come in for another ten hours. Just thinking about that made me exhausted. There was no way I could make it in this sun for even another twenty minutes. And so, a bit sadly, and very guiltily, I turned around to leave. The sea was so spectacularly beautiful I wanted to take it home with me. I trusted its beauty would offer comfort to the remaining runners: its aquamarine waves were the very color of hope.
I looked one final time down the Promenade des Anglaises. There was Octavia, still going strong. The runners passed through an allée of saffron-colored Power Bar flags that waved upliftingly, like Christo’s “The Gates.” No, triathletes were not insane; they had grasped the very essence of sanity, which is to have no doubts.
On the train back to Antibes, with my head pressed against the window because I couldn’t hold it up, I thought of the people who were still out there, running, cycling, their skin salty from the swim. I thought of Julie Moss crawling toward the finish line. I thought of that famous Boston man carting his son on the bike course at Hawaii for seven hours with his wheel jammed. And I realized that all my complaints, all my problems and ailments, all that laundry and unrequited love, were really minor compared to what those athletes put themselves through. And maybe that was the point. If you can run an Ironman, there is nothing you cannot overcome. And the more Ironmen and Ironwomen we have on this planet, the stronger this world will be. Hats off to all of you.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Original Rex and the City series, Part 2

This installment appeared, if I recall correctly, in the December 2000 issue of The Bark Magazine

Rex in the City

Installment #2

New Yorkers have a reputation for being tough customers. They're hard to please, they accept nothing less than the best, and if they are not satisfied with the product, service, or condition upon delivery, they will return the item testily and demand a full refund. But what if the "thing" you want to return has eyes and ears and a full coat of fur and feelings?

Our local animal shelter told us the dog my boyfriend Ted and I chose to adopt in July of '97 was a twelve-month-old French Spaniel. Our vet later said he was more like a six-month-old English Setter. We suspected he was part crocodile--all snapping jaws and bulbous eyelids and a cold, unforgiving stare. But what did we know? Ted and I were clueless about dogs and it wasn't until after we brought one home that we truly realized this.

The first thing Crocodile Rex did when we led him across the proverbial threshhold of our apartment was snap at us. No blood was drawn, but he snapped in such a way as to let us know that he would not tolerate human proximity and that from now on he ruled this roost. Then he tried to wedge his 55-pound body underneath our futon--but in New York City one cannot expect such a thing as unused space. We're talking a three-hundred-square-foot studio here, with crates of winter clothing wedged under the sofas and dozens of shoe boxes Rubix-cubed inside a large trunk, which doubles as a coffee table and triples as a dining table if we ever have guests. Which we don't. Because we're too embarrassed about our apartment. So Rex found refuge under the computer table (which doubles as an ironing board) and hunkered down. He would not let us come within three feet of his bunker without showing his teeth.

"Um, I have, like, work to do on that computer," I said.

"I think it's going to have to wait," Ted said.

When we asked the vet how long she thought it might take Rex to "calm down," she had said, without irony: "about ten years."

Needless to say, we were not prepared for this.

We had come home from the shelter armed with a set of plastic feeding bowls, some dog food, a polyester bed, a book called How to Care for Your Shelter Dog and some nervous but sincere enthusiasm. We had rescued Rex from a life of concrete and cages, we had snatched him willingly from the jaws of death, and frankly we were proud of ourselves. This was the first "couply" thing we had done as a couple, and we hoped to meet each day with that exhilarating sense of togetherness and possibility. But there was one thing missing from the equation: Rex wanted nothing to do with us. Or other dogs. Or other people. Not even houseplants were safe from his wrath as the poor Swedish Ivy learned when it "dared" to brush its leaves against Rex's shoulders. If we so much as looked in that dog's direction his lips would curl and his back would hunch and the soft-looking patch of hair between his shoulder blades would rise and stiffen. "And he doesn't even use hairspray," I would tell my girlfriends, whispering into the telephone so as not to fuel his fire.

It was easy to be flip. Easier, I should say. Because at the other end of the spectrum was the realization that we had made a terrible mistake. But neither Ted nor I was ready or willing to admit that. Yet.

For the first few days, we reminded ourselves that Rex had chosen us-- he had practically begged us to take him home from the pound. And I believed that people came together, not by chance, but by subconscious intentions; I believed that paths crossed for reasons that you had to stick around to understand. Good Ted had come into my life, for example, at a time when I had sworn off all dysfunctional relationships, all poets and rock musicians, all liars and cheats and assholes. But why then had this asshole of a dog chosen me?

When I said I wanted a dog, I guess what I meant was the dog of my childhood. A loving, jolly husky who walked herself, would allow me to dress her up in my brother’s hockey uniform and would eat my unwanted Brussels sprouts. But at a deeper level I also probably wanted unconditional love and the wonderful, rejuvenating proximity to a high-spirited and happy being. How then had we ended up with the only dog on the planet whose love was conditional?

“It’s your fault,” Ted would say. We argued a lot those first few days. Hatefully. “You’re the one who insisted on getting a dog.”

“You picked him out!” I’d say back. “I wanted a puppy.”

“Oh, sure, a puppy that wasn’t house trained?”

Rex at least had that going for him.

"Well," I said. "At least a puppy wouldn't grind his teeth every night in his sleep as if he were sharpening them. At least a puppy might make eye contact and maybe give us a kiss once in a while. At least a puppy wouldn't pull my arm out of its socket every time we went out for a so-called walk!"

Rex clearly had never been trained on a leash before. Picture a large hill with an unmanned SUV resting at its top. Now, release the parking break and allow said SUV to roll unmanned down the hill. Now, try to stop the car from rolling by attaching to the bumper a six-foot leash of nylon. That's what trying to walk Rex was like. Plus, he seemed to be trying to escape all the time. "Part Houdini, part Crocodile," Ted would say when passersby asked what kind of dog Rex was. Escape was in his eyes every time we took him out of the apartment. It was in the way he looked frantically down every alley, through every doorway, into every window—is that my paradise? Is that my way home? Is it there? Is it there?

I have since heard many stories of newly adopted dogs running away. So much so that I now wonder if wanderlust isn’t part of these dogs’ personalities to begin with—if they, in human form, would have been the artists, the poets, the tortured souls. But where do they go, these runaway dogs? Is there an island off the coast of Maryland that they know of, run for and by dogs? Is there a Mecca inspired by a doggie guru, a wise old Schnauzer who could offer to Rex and his imbalanced cronies the meaning of Dog Life? Oh, I wanted so badly to help this dog, to help him find his Mecca, his inner peace. Because he was driving us out of my minds.

Every time we opened the door a crack Rex would try to wedge his way through it. Every time we removed our attention from him for one second, even just to glance at my wristwatch (Has it been ten years yet?), Rex would try to lunge out of his collar. Once, Ted unsnapped Rex's shackles at the entrance to our apartment building and Rex bolted, right onto Suffolk Street. We watched in horror as a one car skidded and another swerved and for a second I honestly wished that Rex would get hit by a car, because then our time with him would have been over, and we could have said we tried. And failed. But at least all this failure would come to an end.

Rex was not hit. We captured him and leashed him and led him defeatedly back to our apartment. Once inside, Rex turned his back to us and began to savagely hump his bed. He humped with the same look of urgency and need with which I used to smoke cigarettes. And chew gum. And drink wine. I realized that Rex was trying to erase something within himself; he was trying to dull some undullable pain, and I watched him with empathy as I dialled the phone.

We decided we should call the shelter and find out some specifics. If we knew where he had come from, we thought, and where he had been, and what kind of parenting he had had, we might be better able to work with him. But the shelter wouldn't tell us anything. Policy, they said. People tend not to adopt an animal if they know its history, the said. “But we already adopted him," I said. "We want to know so that we can keep him."

“Sorry,” I was told.

That night, Ted and I cried. We cried because we were tired and overwhelmed. We cried because we knew we were failures at responsibility and it was time to admit it. We finally knew that, if pressed, we were the types who would not meet challenges head on, or embrace them as they say; no, we were the ones who would back off in the face of challenge, tail between our legs, and run away. We were cowards.

And we even went so far as to ask ourselves if it weren’t in some way a sign of maturity to admit one's cowardice. If accepting ones limitations weren't in itself a sign of progress, a step forward. We were at a crossroads, Ted and I; at two paths diverged in a wood. And we were ready to take road cowards traveled. And Rex would go back to the pound.

“But I love him,” Ted said plaintively. It’s what he said whenever I said I wanted to call it quits and move out on him, because it should be pointed out that I was more neurotic than Rex. But I love you. Ted believed that love was the foundation on which all things—good and bad—rested. I believed love was light as a feather, something that could be swiftly blown away by the growl of a Hell Hound or the force of an unkind word.

“I just wish there was a sign,” I said, “some guarantee that it’s not always going to be like this.”

Rex at the moment was licking his penis. He glanced at me suspiciously, belched, and then went back to his licking.

“There’s your sign,” Ted said. “Nothing comes between a male and his penis.”

It was summer time, remember--one of the hottest summers on record. And in our neighborhood, the sidewalks absorbed the heat and the windows of the buildings beamed rays of sunlight right back at you. It was like being inside a tanning booth all the time. The heat made it harder to think clearly; to rationalize. So how could one make a logical decision when one's brain is liquefied?

Over the next few days I kept calling the shelter, thinking if I could just connect with the right person I could find out Rex's history. But they were firm in their refusal to offer me any information. One person did tell me that Rex had come from Sharon, Connecticut. But then she added: “If you can’t handle him, then why don’t you just bring him back?"

Bring him back? Of course this is what we had kind of decided, but to hear someone else voice this option was another matter. This shelter worker was lumping me in with all the other inadequate, ill-prepared, selfish, clueless people who callously adopt an animal, thinking only of their own shallow, selfish needs. Suddenly I was insulted.

"We'll give him a month," Ted said. "Okay? One month. And if he doesn't show any progress by then, well…"

Neither of us could say it.

That night we looked up Rex’s alleged breed on the internet. The Spaniel and Setter and Crocodile sites all stated that it was cruel to keep this type of exuberant hunting dog in an apartment. The word "cruel" really struck me. Rex had no more hair around his neck, because the choke collar had pinched it all away (think Epilady). He had to walk backwards out of the bathroom, because there was no room for him to turn around. Outside, our neighborhood was littered with chicken bones and junkie needles. Not even sleep could offer this poor puppy refuge. Instead of flexing his toes and woofing happily in his dreams like the normal dogs do, Rex would growl and grind his teeth.

"Maybe we should move out of the City," I said to Ted. "Or give the dog to someone who had a country house."

"Let's take him camping," Ted said. "Some fresh air will do us all some good."

That weekend, we drove to the Catskills, with Rex howling in protest the entire way. He did not stop until we had almost reached the campground and were passing Silver Lake. Suddenly it was as if all of us in the car saw in that lake the solution to all our needs: the need to be cool, the need to relax, the need to start anew. I could feel on my skin the calming sensation of the water and I could see myself swimming with Rex, his little doggie head bobbing above the surface. We headed to this lake as soon as we had set up the campsite: Ted and I in flip-flops, Rex on his Epilady leash. The sun was high and beamed off the water electrically. There were a few fisherman paddling in from an early morning trip. They nodded at us as we led the dog cheerfully into the water. It was a false cheer, in many ways--our voices were high-pitched, and hyperly enthusiastic, but we wanted so badly for Rex to swim. To prove to us that he could be doglike. And lo and behold he swam--a few frantic paddles that became more confident as he got used to it, as he realized he could float, and I said to Ted; "He's swimming! Look! He swims!" And as we hugged each other I let go of Rex's leash, thinking he'd continue to paddle.

But no. Rex saw an opportunity for escape and he took it. He took off. Like lightening, as they say.

Ted and I scrambled to pursue him, but in flip flops this was hard. Rex was gone a good twenty minutes before I spotted him in some far-off woods. He ran downhill, toward a creek and I ran after him barefoot, like an Indian brave. He zigged, I zagged, I shouted at Ted to head him off at the top of the hill, where both were now heading, and I saw, in a flash, as Rex disappeared over the hilltop, that he had a look on his face that I had not seen to date. It was a smile. A doggie smile.

Eventually Ted tackled the dog and literally scooped him up in his arms. He brought Rex to me as a farmer would bring a lamb to slaughter. Rex looked defeated and a little, well embarrassed, as if he had been emasculated somehow (edogulated). Ted deposited the dog on top of a large flat rock (a la the Balto statue in Central Park), leashed him, and told me to get the camera out of his backpack. "I want to take some pictures of him to remember him by," he said. "Because I can't take this anymore. On Monday we're taking him back."

I nodded. Ted was limping from having re-activated an old knee injury. I was limping from weeks of trying to stop the proverbial SUV from rolling down the hill. And then there was Rex's dog-smile. That got me thinking maybe he knew what was best for him more than we did. We are only human after all. He is Dog.

And so, sadly, we took pictures, and you can see in hindsight in these photos how unhappy we were. The three of us--young couple, young dog--posed with our hard stares aimed away from one another, locked in private disappointments. We looked like an album cover.

On the way back to the campsite, we walked along the road. Rex pooped on the pavement, which made me realize he hadn't done so on naked ground. "He must have been trained to go on a sidewalk or a street, don't you think?"

"He must have had that training beaten into him," Ted said. "Poor guy."

That night, in our tent, we slept fitfully. Rex was outside, tied up (we'd invited him inside the tent but he'd declined ferociously) and he paced around like, well, like a wild animal. "Who's ever heard of a dog insomniac?" Ted said, snuggling close to me, but I couldn't laugh. It seemed to me Rex was doing some serious thinking. I could feel it, the way you can feel a storm coming, or the moment you conceive a child. And as I dozed off, I could only hope that Rex, in some moment of truth, would realize that we kept chasing after him because we cared for him. Despite him. Despite ourselves.

And in the morning, as the sun poked through the tent screens and the swallows chirped, I felt a strange pressure against the right side of my body. The pressure of something large and warm. It was Rex, who had decided at some time in the night to lie against me. We were separated by a thin wall of nylon. "Ted," I whispered. "Give me your hand." Sleepily he complied and I took his hand and pressed it up against the outline of Rex's body. Ted smiled. And outside we heard a thump-thump-thump. "What's that?" Ted said, and I said, "I think it's a dog. A dog wagging his tail."

It was the best sound we ever heard.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Original Rex and the City series, coming at you!

Given that I have no time to write any new blogs (the novel is due in 3 weeks!), I thought I would post some old materials—The original Rex and the City columns, to be precise. These started appearing in the Bark magazine back in August of 2000—before the Bark had a website even. So none of these columns have appeared online.

As many of you know, these columns eventually led to the publication of my best-selling memoir (basically a fleshed-out version of the columns). But some readers have expressed interest in seeing the ‘originals.’ So for the next three months, I’ll be posting one column per week, in order of their appearance in the Bark.

Rex and the City –
Part 1): The Decision

On this particular summer Saturday, on this last day of life as I knew it without a dog, my first thought was: what to wear. I had planned to wear a pink linen dress, with a matching pink hat, but when I pulled said dress out of the closet I saw that there was a big stain on its backside. Gum or something. From sitting on the subway, no doubt. One of the great risks you take, in New York City, is sitting down.

“Find something else to wear,” Ted said. “And hurry. We’re supposed to be at Chad’s by noon.”

Ted was the live in boyfriend. Chad was our friend from Long Island friend who had been promising for months to take up to Lloyd Neck Country Club, one of the most exclusive clubs in the area to which he belonged. And finally, today, we were going!

But what to wear? Most New York girls in such crises will produce the old standby: the little black dress. I paired mine with a Wonder bra and platform shoes.

“Okay, let’s go,” I said to Ted. We lived together for the same reasons most couples cohabitated in New York City: because it saved us money and we got instant sex. Marriage, I suppose, was a p-p-possibility, if only another M-word could enter the equation on my behalf: Maturity.

“You can’t wear that,” Ted announced.

“Why not?”

“You can’t wear black to Lloyd Neck.”

“I can.”

“I’m telling you, you can’t. Just put on a polo shirt and those white shorts.”

“I don’t want to look dowdy.” I was twenty-seven and already terrified of such things.

“Who’s going to care?”

“I’ll care.” Deep down, I knew that Ted was right. But something in me that day didn’t want him to know I knew he was right. “Besides. This is the only thing I have.”

“You have a whole closet full of clothes.”

“This is the only thing that fits.” My voice rose a little at the end, and cracked, and Ted must have sensed that I was headed beyond reason, so black dress it was.

But when we got to Chad’s he, Chad, took one look at my get-up and said we wouldn’t be going to the Club. “I know of a great place in Bayville. It’s a clam shack right on the beach.”
On the way there, I stared out the window and sulked. We passed mansion after fabulous mansion, with stately oak trees and the fine green lawns. It seemed that most of the wealth of the world could be found on this slender, riotous island (one can’t help but make Gatsby references in these parts) and the fact that I was so close to and yet so far from it made me sulk. I had done it all wrong. And I cursed myself for not heeding the #1 rule of WASPdom: no cleavage. No black.
Later, Ted said I was being paranoid. That Chad simply didn’t feel like going to the club that day. “He’s like that. He changes his mind constantly.” But I knew better. Some people have gay-dar; I have snob-dar.
Lunch was a disappointment. The crabs tasted as if they had been soaked in formaldehyde and above our heads was a giant banner that said, WET T-SHIRT CONTESTS THURSDAY NIGHTS. Ted and Chad talked about old friends from college, but I wasn’t listening. I was too busy staring in horror at the sad, haggard-looking woman drinking margaritas by herself at the bar. She was smoking Kools and wearing—black.
It’s strange how the small, petty moments can be the ones that change your life. It was because of that woman, and because of my convictions that my life was closer to hers than it was to, say, Daisy Buchanan’s, that I decided, on the way back to the City, that Ted and I should stop at the animal shelter and look at—just look at—dogs. “We drove all the way out here,” I reasoned. “We might as well do something productive with this day.”
Dogs were something Ted and I had talked about haphazardly, in those moments when we got along so well we could giddily envision a future together. In our two years, we’d also talked about travelling, and moving to a bigger apartment, and getting a new computer, a new mattress, new careers, new lives, but so far none of those things had materialized. And so suddenly, there in that hot car, I decided I was tired of being an all-talk-no-action kind of person. I want to call myself on something. And call Ted on it, too.
“Let’s do it,” I said. “Let’s look at dogs.”
At the shelter, we headed straight for the puppy section, but in doing so we walked past the adult dogs first. Thus we saw Rex. I want to say that there was a moment of Knowing, an instant bond, but, with me at least, this was not the case. He was a beautiful specimen, a white and brown spaniel, like one of those proud, haughty sporting dogs you see in English paintings. But a puppy he was not.

A volunteer approached us. She struck me as a perky high school student who hoped someday to be a perky vet. She carried a clipboard and wanted to know if we were interested in adopting today. “Oh, we’re kind of just looking around today,” I said, but Ted stopped and asked her about the Spaniel: how old was he was? Where’s he from?
She said Rex was rescued from a pound in Connecticut. He was about to be put down when North Shore showed up. “He’s only been here three days. Do you like him? Do you want to try him out?”
“Try him out?”
“Walk him. We have a walking room. We call it the bonding room.”
“Not yet,” Ted said. “Maybe later.”
We made the rounds of the adult section and fell in love a dozen times. There was Dudley, a sad black hound with an eye infection. And Scooter, a harlequin Great Dane. The volunteer followed us and told us how we should feel about each dog before we’d even had a chance to shake paws with them. “Oh, you won’t like her,” she said of a sweet-looking Border-Collie. “Too much work.” Then she pulled me by the arm and told me I had to meet Missy. “She’s epileptic!”
I didn’t want to see Missy but I went along anyway, helpless. “Missy’s owner loved her” she said, “but unfortunately she couldn’t keep her because she was allergic.”
We stood outside Missy’s pen. She was a sweet dog, yes, a sad, shivering mixture of shepherd and lab, but I didn’t see why I had been singled out as her potential owner. The volunteer hadn’t asked us any questions about our wants or needs, about our lifestyle.
“Do you want to walk her?”
I looked over at Ted, who was back at Rex’s pen. I muttered something about puppies.
“Puppies are different,” she said. “They’re so much work. You can’t bring them outside for eight weeks, they have weak immune systems, you have to be prepared. Missy’s --”
“Excuse me,” I said.
Ted decided he wanted to walk Rex, so the volunteer led us to the walking area, a glassed-in room of lacquered concrete. Once there Rex became frantic. He scrambled on the slippery floor and jumped up on every window, as if to see if escape lay beyond. Ted struggled to control him. He tried to get the dog to sit or heel, but Rex didn’t speak this language. Meanwhile, the volunteer took notes.
“He’s so nervous and skittish,” I said. “Is he okay?”
“All dogs are like that at first,” she said.
“Let me try,” I said to Ted, and the volunteer looked at my platform shoes. “Are you sure you know how to walk a dog?”
Yes, I knew how to walk a dog. During grad school I was a dog walker, thank you. And I grew up with dogs. This last part I told her haughtily. “Huskies,” I said. “My father mushed them.”
“Where are they now?”
“What do you mean?”
“What happened to the dogs?”
“My father’s dogs? From when I was a child?”
“Yes, yes. Where are the huskies?”
“We gave them away,” I said. Ted started to pinch me.
“What do you mean ‘you got rid of them’?”
“My mother died. We had a new born baby in the house. My stepmother was afraid of dogs.”
She made another notation on her pad. “We normally don’t adopt out to people with a history of getting rid of animals.”
I was about to tell her that no one cared for animals more than I did, and how dare she, but Ted pulled me away, saying, “Puppy time!”
In the puppy room, I brought each heavenly one to my face, whispering sweet nothings, giving and receiving kisses. “I really like Rex,” Ted kept saying distractedly. “I mean it, I really do.”
Ms. Aggressive Sales Pitch came in as if on cue and told us someone else was interested in our Spaniel. “We’re thinking,” Ted said. “Can’t we think?”
“You have three minutes,” she said, and literally spun on her heels.
Ted followed her. He asked her if it would be okay, if we decided we wanted Rex, to come back pick him up on Wednesday. He something about wanted to get the apartment prepared.
“This is not a boarding house,” she snapped.
“We know it’s not a boarding house,” I said. “We’re simply not familiar with the procedures.”
“Look, do you want him or not? A dog like him will be gone by Wednesday, so you need to decide now.”
I was about to tell this girl to just, just, Gatsby off when something happened. Rex started barking. He barked as if he knew we were about to give up on him. He barked as if he knew he was meant for us, even though we didn’t know yet we were meant for him. Ted looked at me and said, “Should we do it?” And I said, “I guess,” and started to cry. It was like saying “I do.”
In the “processing center” we had to fill out more forms, swear on the Holy Bible that we were who we said we were, and promise that we had no intentions of selling the dog. We had to stand at the counter while they confirmed our address and called our three references, and then we were asked to sit in the waiting room for twenty minutes, ostensibly for them to fill out paperwork but really, we thought, to give us one last chance to change our minds. There, about three dozen other people waited. The room was filled with the smell of worry and second thoughts and fear. No wonder all the dogs were howling! Behind us, a Lloyd Neck-ish woman was called back to the interview area. As she stood, a cloud of expensive perfume rose with her. Minutes later she came out screaming. “I’m a donor! How dare you refuse me that cat? I’ve given hundreds, thousands of dollars to this place.” She told her husband to get his coat. “We’re leaving! They’re not giving us the kitten. Because they think it’s my fault Tuna got hit by a car! You’ll hear about this!” she shouted to the room in parting. And she left us all with the sickly feeling that we, too, would be denied.
“I wish I hadn’t told them about the huskies,” I whispered.
“I’m rethinking puppies,” Ted said. “Rex seems pretty messed up.”
But then they were calling our names and delivering the good news—we’re parents! And then they were giving us Rex, who pulled us out into the parking lot and tried to run away, and we pulled the dog toward the car, and he resisted, oh, how he resisted. God knew where he’d be taken this time, but he would not have it. No, he would not! As we wrestled him into the car, he literally howled the words, No, No, No and threw himself against the windows. I got in the back seat with him, to try to calm him down, but still he howled and scratched and hurled himself against the doors, trying to get out. As we got closer to the City, his brays got louder, more intense, as if he were saying: don’t take me into your nightmare existence! Don’t take me to where there is glass on the sidewalks and needles in the park! Don’t take me to your studio apartment—you don’t have enough space! Your windows face airshafts! No! No! Nooooooo!!
Ted kept looking at us in the rearview mirror. His eyes were disbelieving, glazed. “Are you okay back there?” he said.
“How could he have barked at us like that inside if he didn’t really want us after all?”
“He must have seen the future.” Ted said.
Ah, the future. In which Rex would be taken on four-hour hikes in the Catskills. In which a French baker who would treat him each day to the end of a baguette. In which I, who never cook, would be sauteeing him ground beef and potatoes, and tenderly analyzing the quality of his stool.
“But then why is he howling? Should we be worried, too?”
“I was kidding,” Ted said. “Don’t worry. We’ll make the best of this.”
And what did we know? We were just a young couple, trying to our best to conquer—or at least meet—the indomitable force of New York City. And now we were three. So we just drove on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the next day.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Divorce, a New Country, A New Dog

Dog Days in France
by Lee Harrington

After a year of losses, a writer experiences France through her new dog’s eyes
France is famous for loving its wine, its food, and above all its dogs (which in my opinion makes that country the very nearest thing to heaven on this earth). So a few years ago I made the decision to set my second novel in the South of France, thereby granting myself to right to travel to the Riviera each summer under the name of “research.” This means that technically I could laze around the beach, and get soused on rosé, stuff myself with cheese, and then write it all off on my taxes. I consider myself a very fortunate person indeed.

But still, the idea of traveling alone kind of depressed me. It didn’t bother me when I was in my twenties, when I was more adventurous, but I had recently hit a milestone birthday, and had gotten divorced and then had to deal with the very sudden death of my beloved dog Wallace. My sorrow and loneliness felt wretched and eternal, to the point where I started to believe that being alone was a curse placed upon me at birth, perhaps as some negative karma from a previous lifetime, and therefore I just had to accept it, and deal.

But spending a summer alone in France—in one of the most beautiful places on earth—worried me in a way that I can’t explain. Would I be able to handle so much beauty with my mind so clouded with sorrow? Isn’t beauty meant to be shared?

Because I had no interest in staving off my loneliness with yet another man, I decided to get another dog, a rescue, whom I named Clothilde—or Chloe for short. And as soon as I met her I asked her excitedly if she wouldn’t mind spending a few months with me in a remote French village, but instead of jumping up and down in bliss and ecstacy at the thought of going anywhere, she merely wagged her tail. Just the tip of her tail—in that way dogs have when they are not sure whether they are supposed to be excited or not. Fans of Charlie Brown may recall that Snoopy would give a full tail-wag for Sally but only a tippy-tail wag for Charlie. So who can blame for feeling a little hurt, and paranoid. Did my new dog not like me? Or did she instinctively know that, as my second dog, she might not be as beloved as my first?

In any case, I now had a traveling partner. And I was convinced we would bond once she saw the beautiful beaches and meadows of France.
Now, any dog person knows that if you travel with a dog you are more approachable, more likeable, more willingly embraced. People assume you are a good person if you love a dog. But this was 2005, back when we had a greedy, lying idiot for a president. It was the time of “Freedom Fries” and the “Axis of Weasel.” The “president” encouraged Americans to boycott French wine. So I wasn’t sure if the fact that I am one-quarter French would excuse my being an American. What if people thought I had voted for Bush?

It was up to Chloe to earn me some points with the French. Luckily she is cute, and eternally happy, and to top it all, an epagneul francais. She is also most likely part Border Collie—she has those freaky Border Collie eyes, which reduce to pin points every time you bring the ball out—but I didn’t mention the Border Collie part at French customs, I simply said “le chien est l’epaguneul francais” and we were welcomed heartily into my adopted country.

We found ourselves living in a charming little town called Grimaud—a perched medieval village just north of St. Tropez. Its first stone had been set in the 1100’s and the village still carried many of the qualities of that by-gone age, where everyone knew one another, and large fortress walls both protected and sequestered the villagers from the outside world. No one—well, almost no one—spoke English in Grimaud, which seemed fitting for such a place. But I, at the time, had little faith in my French, and had assumed I would breeze through the Alpes-Maritime like a true American—one who expected everyone to be fluent in the Common Tongue.

But the Grimaldines were not fluent in American. Suddenly I was forced to tap into a portion of my brain that I hadn’t used since college, where I had taken French only to meet the language requirement for my B.F.A. And, although college was not that long ago, I have always assumed that that portion of my brain had been fried by recreational drugs. Still, I had no choice but to speak French. I needed provisions, after all. My dog needed her free bones. So we ventured into shops and stores, and tried to communicate our needs, and I found that with my dog in tow, the villagers were willing to tolerate—indeed, even work with—my faltering French. They helped correct my pronunciation. They taught me new and essential words. Mostly they cooed at Chloe, who clearly made them happy, and earned me warm and embracing smiles. They told her she was sweet and charming and asked her name. The nodded in approval when they learned that she had a French old lady’s name: Chlothilde, and offered her bits of cheese, and laughed when she jumped on their counters to receive her treat. She took the treats into her mouth so politely and gingerly she would not have popped a soap bubble. “What good manners,” they said.

Soon I realized that my college brain had not been fried—it was simply dormant, something that needed a great long, Rip-Van-Winkle-like rest after four years of staying up till sunrise and doing bong-hits right before class. I wouldn’t say I became fluent, but my days in Grimaud developed a certain fluidity, and inevitability, and made me think that if I was going to be alone for the rest of my life, and many lifetimes to come, at least
I knew how to say things like: I would like a pound of goat testicle, please, for my dog, and some entrails of baby pigs.

By our fifth day in Grimaud the dog and I had a routine: we’d rise in the mornings with first light—which in Southern France is a gorgeous, pale light, the color of brie—and then I’d throw on some breezy linen clothing, and we’d set out on our morning walk. Our walk took us first to the grounds of an ancient chateau, where Chloe would pee upon its hallowed ruins, then up to a small park which overlooked the village and provided grand views of the sea.

I sat there every day for six weeks, and the beauty of the view never failed to astonish me. The sea seemed to be made of diamonds, and the park always smelled of rosemary and sage and lavender. Chloe would zip around through the trails and brushes, latching on to this scent or that, flushing out a bird—some French bird I never learned the name of—and she would leap up and try to catch the gorgeous French butterflies, and it all just seemed so French, and then her new pal would arrive at the Park—a sublime Beauceron named Prince, and when I asked if he had been named after the “Artist formerly known as Prince” my new French friend really didn’t get, and I couldn’t explain in her language. But our dogs spoke the same language, so everything was fine. We would stand around and watch as the dogs frolicked. The nipped and bowed and barked, and threw their bodies against one another and clacked teeth, and then they’d chase one another—in joyous circles--around the giant wooden statue of Jesus on the Cross, in whose honor this park was named. France is a Catholic country, and Jesus faced the Chateau, because that way, it was said, the king could behold Him every morning, and remember to rule his people with an open heart.

So this is how I started my day: with kings and princes, dogs, a blue sky, and a new French friend.

After our walk we’d head down into the village for breakfast, making several stops along the way. First, we would pass an alleyway near the town chapel, where a one-eyed cat often lurked, and where Chloe went into fourth gear, pacing and panting and maniacally sniffing at all the cracks in the walls. She seemed certain that the cat would someday come out and surrender itself, and the way she wagged her tail suggested that she would never give up hope.

Next, we stopped at the Roman fountain at the center of the square so that Chloe could have a drink—an ancient, noble fountain into which the dog would climb, much to the delight of the men who gathered there in the mornings to play boules. In New York, they would have taken me and the dog off in handcuffs if she waded in a public fountain. And yet here, in France, my dog could refresh herself in full view of the gendarmerie—impeccably dressed policemen, in crisp, tailored uniforms, who laughed and smoked and asked Chloe if she had enjoyed le bain after she had come up to them and shook herself off. I don’t know why dogs always wait to shake themselves off until they are within two feet of humans, but the French didn’t care. Maybe they thought being showered in dog-water was good luck, just as they thought that stepping in dog-shit with your left foot was good luck. In any case, they seemed to know that a dog shaking water off itself was as natural as water itself. Dogs remind us that life really is about the simple things, such as taking refreshment in cool water and then shimmying it off.

Next, we walked down Rue du Marie—a cobblestoned street lined with bougainvillea and potted ferns. Every day, without fail, we would pass two fat Labs lying underneath a cool stone archway, munching on yesterday’s stale baguettes. Chloe always hoped that the Labs might share their baguettes, but when she approached they’d growl at her, protective of their crunchy crusts. The owner would stick his head out the door and apologize about his chiens mechant. But Chloe never gave up hope that the someday the labs would share their bread.

Next we’d pass under a stone arch, which led us onto another narrow cobble-stoned street that wound its way leisurely into the heart of the village. We’d pass two art galleries, a touristy shop where they sold soaps and pottery, but at that hour they were closed, and soaps hold no interest to a dog anyway. She had her nose trained on the boulangerie mid-way down the street. I made her wait outside while I bought my daily bread and she barked impatiently, knowing that if she kept on barking she would eventually get her fair share of the baguette, which was the butt end of it, the pointy, crunchy part the French call the col. And all the other villagers waiting in line would laugh of course, for what is more charming than a dog crunching on a col on a sunny summer morning under the blue Mediterranean sky?

Next Chloe would rush toward the boucherie. There, she would press her nose against the window, and wag her whole body with joy, until the butcher’s daughter came and out with a gigantic marrow bone—like, an entire shin. Now, a dog with a marrow bone has a certain look: eyes bright, tail bobbing, a brisk pace, eager to find a shady place to lie down and enjoy the treat.

And that place, for Chloe, was always the cafe. It was the sort of cafe you’d expect in a tiny French village: open aired, with wicker chairs all facing in the same direction: toward the street.

One thing I did not know is that, in France, it is uncommon for a woman to sit in a cafe alone. Often, waiters will hesitate to serve you, because they assume you are waiting for your husband. I did not know this custom, so for the first few days, I would sit there, flabbergasted, trying to get the waiter’s attention. Next to my table was a small Roman fountain, adorned with the stone face of a stone-eyed man who, I swear, looked just like my ex-husband. If he were here, I told myself, I would get served. But then again, if he were here, he’d be reminding me how much this vacation cost, and telling me to stop being a writer and get a real job.

Meanwhile, there was Chloe lying on the cobblestones beneath me, and the only thing that existed for her was that bone. Sometimes it felt to me that this dog and I hadn’t bonded yet. Maybe it was her independent Border-Collie thing. Or maybe it was me. Maybe I could never love another dog the way I had loved Wallace. And maybe poor Chloe knew this, and therefore contented herself with sleep and food.

After a few days the waiter figured out I was alone. Not alone in the existential sense, but that I was the American-woman-who-had-come-to-live-in-the-village-to-write-a-book. Cheerfully, he brought me my coffee and my croissant, and ask me all about New York, which he someday hoped to visit, and Chloe would lie at my feet, even though the chef at the cafe kept inviting her into the back kitchen, to sample the his boeuf de moutard and coq au vin. No, she had her bone, so she was content—as content as a child with ice-cream. I liked to think she was content to be near me.

We’d spend three hours at this cafe, me with my laptop, Chloe with that everlasting bone. In France, no one brings a laptop to a cafe—why would someone work during breakfast, or lunch, or at all?—so I knew of course I was exposing myself as an American. Indeed, French tourists often stopped and stared. But then Chloe would crawl out from beneath the table and begin to tool around the restaurant, looking for scraps. The gawkers smiled. Her behavior was so acceptable and natural that mine had to be, too.

So instead of becoming the subject of ridicule among the local folk—the laptop Americaine—I became a source of benign amusement. The waiter explained to the chef that I was working on a novel. The chef explained to the florist that I was recently divorced. The florist explained to the mayor’s wife that I was renting a small house near the Chapelle des Penitents, and that I liked to visit the Chapelle in the evenings, even though I was technically Buddhist. The mayor’s wife told my 80-year old neighbor that I meditate in that Chapelle, and my neighbor told me conspiratorially that she liked to meditate, too.

We shared a courtyard, Evelyne and I, and she was a painter, and drove a flaming orange Peugeot. She wore beautiful floral dresses, in feminine colors such as lavender and pink, and always tsked-tsked at me when I showed up in my Janis Joplin t-shirt and cut off denim shorts. “You must use your feminine powers,” she always told me. I have a tattoo on my right thigh of an Apache thunderbird, which is supposed to give me power in war. Did that count as a feminine power?

Evelyne lived alone. And yet her life was full and varied. She drove with the convertible top down. Chloe adored her, and the feeling was mutual, as Evelyne left her doors open all day, so that Chloe could tool around her house in search of the cat that had died years ago. Through Evelyne, I learned all sorts of cutie dog words. A do-do was a dog toy. A chou-chou was a pretty dog. When Chloe writhed around in the courtyard waiting for her belly-scratch, Evelyne would tell her she was the prettiest dog in the world, the sweetest, the most adorable. She told me I was lucky to have a friend like this.

Sometimes I worried that I was becoming a stereotype: the loner divorcee who adopts a dog in order to fill some emptiness, and who starts attributing to the dog all sorts of human emotions and powers. Soon I would be the middle aged woman who lets herself go; who stops dressing in a way that might attract a member of the opposite sex.

Yet, standing there in the courtyard with vibrant Evelyne and my silly, happy dog, I would feel connected to the universe in a way that is hard to explain.

Still, nights can be lonely in France. Perhaps it is simply because nighttime is an ending, and to spend a night alone is to remember all your partings and endings, all your shortcomings and failures. Each evening, at around ten o’clock, I would take Chloe out for our final walk through the village. We’d walk past the restaurants with their glowing white tablecloths and flickering lights: tables full of couples and families, talking, laughing, sipping wine. The women all wore frilly blouses. Then men all stared at them, rapt. Their wine glasses caught the light of the candle flames, and the air would be filled with the sounds of tinkling silverware and hushed, smooth conversation. These sounds echoed off the stone walls, filling the very night with a theme of some sort—a theme of togetherness, I guess, of completing another day. I felt like a ghost.

But Chloe broke this spell. Each time she trotted past the restaurants holding her latest do-do (a stuffed Santa Claus Evelyne had given her) all conversations would stop. We would be met with smiles and laughter. A waiter would call her over for a bit of steak frites. And people would speak to me in French about the dog, and comment on how pleased she seemed to be with herself, and what a lovely night it was, and ask: You are the American writer, yes?

“Yes, and I didn’t vote for Bush,” I’d say with a smile. “And neither did my dog.”

“Ah, bon, bon,” they would say, and wish me a good night. A bonsoir.

And so, with this blessing, we would walk on. We’d pass the Chapelle des Penitents and then the château, lit theatrically with giant spotlights. We’d pass a villa within which someone was always playing the piano, and then a long wall covered with brilliant pink flowers that only bloomed at night. Their scent was intoxicating, and as thick as a shield. Finally we’d pass three elderly women were always sitting on chairs outside their building, and they, of all the villagers, loved Chloe best. They were gentle, dignified Frenchwomen, who were now too old to stand, but not so old as to forego wearing frilly dresses and heels. They had the formal accents of Parisians, but all formality melted when Chloe covered all these women with kisses. Chloe would leap up onto their frail laps and muddy their dresses, and they’d laugh and playfully try to steal her Santa Claus, saying, ca n’est pas Noel.

To me they were polite and kind. They asked me where I was born, and how I liked the weather, and I would answer in my crisp French, all the while feeling an inexplicably yearning to crawl onto their laps. I yearned to tell them the larger stories—this loneliness, my divorce. I wanted to them how my dog had been hit by a car the day after I moved out on my husband, and how I wondered if he, the dog, had committed suicide, because he couldn’t bear to see us all live apart. I don’t know what it was about these women—I just wanted them to know. And yet I suppose they knew anyway. You can always see a story in a person’s eyes.

One night, as Chloe and I passed, the ladies invited me to join them. Touched, I sat, and Chloe settled in at my feet. For a moment, none of us spoke. We listened to the laughter. We smelled those flowers and felt that breeze. Above us the chateau loomed—a castle that had not crumbled in nine hundred years. Suddenly I realized we were all in this world together. We were all the same. Everyone just wants to be happy, as the Dalai Lama says. French, American, dogs, humans: all just want to be loved. I placed my hand on Chloe’s flank, and I could feel her little warm heart pounding through her ribs. She pressed her body into my leg and looked into my eyes. Don’t be sad, she seemed to be saying. The world is large and we are here. We are, we are, we are.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Interview on Animal Talk Radio this week

Blog for the week:
I did a fun radio interview yesterday on Animal Talk Naturally – one of the best radio programs out there concerning how to best care for our beloved pets.
Hosts Dr. Kim Bloomer and Dr. Jeannie Thomason have been so very suppotive of Bark magazine, and of me personally (sniff!). They promote my writing, my book Rex and the City: A Memoir of a Woman, a Man, and a Dysfunctional Dog; and most importantly we support the same message, which is that all shelter dogs deserve a good home—even the so called ‘unadoptable” ones. Love cures all.

In this program, Kim, Jeannie and I talked about how to successfully treat your dog holistically for Lyme's disease—using teasel flower essences and homeopathy. And how to avoid expensive, unnecessary visits to your Western veterinary practitioner. I am no expert on the subject by any means—but ATN wanted to interview me as sort of a ‘layperson’ – not a professional. Listeners are more apt to trust someone with ‘real life experience.’

It is our hope that pet owners nationwide—and throughout the world—will recognize how UNNECESSARY it is to treat out pets exclusively with Western medicines: antibiotics, vaccinations, and the like. There are natural alternatives, and people in this country need to realize we don’t need to be slaves to the pharmaceutical industries.
My dog was not only cured of Lyme’s Disease using flower essences and homeopathy; she is now naturally immunized against further infection.

Here’s a link to the interview here:
Radio Show:

Here, also, are links to Green Hope Flower Essences (for information on teasel flower)
and to the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association
and to a cool new vet in Charleston, SC:

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Last Rex Column

This is a cross-post from my final Rex and the City installment, which appears in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Bark magazine:

Farewell, Fine Friend

For the past few years, readers have been asking what has happened to my “Rex and the City” columns, and, more pointedly, asking what happened to the dog we called Rex (his real name was Wallace). Well, the truth is, he died. Almost six years ago. His death was sudden and tragic and traumatic and I cannot write about it in detail because it is too sad.
But, long story short: After five years of marriage, Ted and I finally divorced in 2002. It was the right thing to do, and we still love each other, but apparently Wallace did not think it was the right thing to do: He died the day after I moved out.

Ted and I had agreed upon joint custody of the dog, and the plan was that I would take Wallace for the first two weeks after my departure. I’ll never forget the sense of both excitement and sorrow I felt as Wallace and I drove off to my new cottage in Hyde Park. I remember looking at him in the back seat and telling him that we were starting a new life, in a new house. “You’ll love it,” I told him. “We’ll be happy together.” But that didn’t happen. My new life stopped almost as soon as it had begun. We arrived at the cottage late at night, and in the morning, he died. I hadn’t even unpacked.

I have since heard many stories about pets dying—suddenly, mysteriously, and/or unexpectedly—shortly after their humans separate. Who can explain this? Do he not want to live without us, his trinity? Did he feel his job on earth was complete? I still don’t know. All I know is that I felt that not only had I lost my dog—I’d also lost the only pure love I’d ever had in my life. Dogs are Love, period. Love on four legs. I cried every day for two years.

The sense of loss was all-consuming. The pounds fell off me, eaten away by anxiety and sorrow. Plus, what was the point of eating if there was no dog to lick my plate? For months I sank, crying during the day, and even in my sleep, for I dreamed of Wallace constantly, sometimes seeing him maimed, sometimes believing he was alive again. Then there was the guilt I felt for not protecting my dog, and the agony I felt at the fact that Ted totally blamed me. There was the anger at the man who had killed him—an anger turned into an obsession as I contacted lawyers and plotted all sorts of revenge. But none of this brought Wallace back.

Meanwhile, readers and editors kept asking when my next “Rex” column would appear. Believe me: I wanted to continue to writing about Wallace, because it would mean that, somehow, my beloved dog would live on. But I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be witty. I couldn’t write lite little stories about his cute doggie antics and comic dog-in-the-city episodes. Maybe next month, I kept telling my editors and myself. Maybe next month I’ll be “ready” to write about him again.

The Bark columns, to date, had covered only the first six months of Wallace’s life. I obviously had a lot to say about this dog. Sometimes one column might chronicle one short day in this dog’s rich and varied dog-life. I wrote about his first trip to Central Park; his first encounter with a man dressed like a hot-dog; his first experience being forced to dress like a drag queen for a doggie Halloween contest. I literally have hundreds of pages of notes about this dog (I’m talking more than five hundred!) and I would have been happy to write about him forever. Because I was writing about laughter and love. Anyway, that was all cut short when he died. It’s not easy to write about someone who wasn’t supposed to die. Not like that.

There was so much I hadn’t yet written about: Marrying Ted, spending five years arguing with Ted; watching the dog get sick every time I tried to leave; and then, finally. Then the accident; calling Ted; Ted arriving at the scene, sobbing; Ted falling to his knees before Wallace’s body, saying “My boy, my boy.” Ted refusing to allow me to touch him. Me telling Ted I was sorry. Ted saying “Get out of my face.” Ted later refusing to let me have any of Wallace’s ashes. Me eventually stealing a small portion of the ashes, which Ted still doesn’t know about ’til this day.

No, I could not write about any of this.

For time had stopped somehow. Sorrow, fear, and guilt kept me trapped. At one point I was so distraught I consulted an animal communicator. I guess I wanted someone to tell me that Wallace was okay somewhere, and that his death wasn’t my fault. She said this, and more. She said Wallace had come forth to be my helper. She said he had also come forth to learn two lessons: One was that people can be mean and the other was that people can offer unconditional love. (Boy, did he help me learn this, too). She also said—and this is what gave me the most hope—that Wallace would come back to me. As another dog.

Thus, I began my search. I began to spend hours on the Internet, trolling through dogs on I had a few set criteria. The dog had to be a rescue and he/she had to be either a French Spaniel (what I believed Wallace to be) or an English setter/Springer Mix (what Ted believed Wallace to be). But anyone who has ever but the words “spaniel” or “setter” into the search engine at Petfinder knows that hundreds of images will come up. On any given day I might see 324 cocker spaniels, 276 Springers, a handful of Brittanys, one King Charles mix and four Clumbers. “Setter” brought up hundreds of English, Irish and Gordon Setters. I wanted them all. (French Spaniels never came up because they just aren’t that common in the States.) I would search until the sun had set and the house was dark and there was nothing but me and a blue screen and 798 spaniels. I felt, in many ways, like some kind of porn addict, trying to find true connection in a lonely world. But for months no connection came, and I remained dogless. And empty. (Note that in all this time I never searched for a man!)

Rumi once wrote: “do not grieve for loss because everything you lose comes back to you in a different form.” The problem was, back then, that I wanted Wallace to come back to me in the exact same form. This can be an obstacle if you’re trying to adopt another dog. Every night I looked into the eyes of a thousand dogs and ask, “Wallace, is that you?” But I couldn’t find him, which left me bereft. Plus, how do you pick a new dog? Especially if you believe your previous dog was perfect and irreplaceable?

There were a couple of near misses: Polly, the sweet, half-blind Pit Bull mix who had been found stabbed and starving on the roof of an apartment building in Brooklyn. Arnold, the droopy-eyed Bassett I met a shelter in Hyde Park, N.Y. Café, an actual French Spaniel who had been relinquished by his guardians, a young couple who had divorced; neither wanted to keep the dog because he reminded each of the other. I never met Café—he was being fostered by a breeder in Montreal, Quebec—and yet to this day, he stays in my mind. I’m pretty certain he was meant to be my dog. And it would have been good karma to pick up a new dog right where my old one had left off. And yet I could never manage to “find the time” to drive up to Canada.
In 2003, I came very close to adopting an English Setter who looked exactly like Wallace, but my application was denied. (It took about six months to recover from that rejection.) I once even found a dog named Rex! Rex was being fostered at the very same shelter at which I had found Wallace years before. This Rex—a Great Dane puppy—had mischievous blue eyes, and I immediately wanted him. But others had already expressed an interest—a young couple from the city. I watched them as they discussed whether or not they should get this Rex. In my eyes, they were Ted and me all over again, trying to figure out whether to follow their minds or their hearts. I sent them a silent blessing and drove off.

Around that time, I was approached by an editor who wanted to publish a book version of the columns. I was thrilled! Publishing a book had long been one of my dreams. So I spent months writing an expanded version of the columns, carrying the story through my divorce and Wallace’s death. “Umm, there’s a problem,” my editor said. “We want a happy ending. We want you and Ted to be married, and we want Rex to be alive.” She asked that I end my memoir in a different place, namely, at the moment Ted and I got engaged. This felt wrong. “I wanted a happy ending, too,” I told my editor. “But it didn’t turn out that way.”

“No one wants to read a book about a dead dog,” she said. (This conversation took place two years before Marley and Me was published—the bestselling memoir about a dead dog :)

And so, because I did not trust my own instincts, and because I trusted this editor, I agreed to cut my life story in half. It took several months to write this half-memoir, and in that time I stopped searching for dogs on Petfinder. Part of the reason was that I was living in a cottage in Woodstock that had no internet service. Part of the reason was I felt icky about not being able to write the truth, which made me feel like a bad person, which made me feel I didn’t “deserve” another dog. But I think the main reason was—and it feels shameful to admit this in a dog magazine—I had started to enjoy the freedom of not having a dog.

This is what I did in my time “between dogs:” I traveled. I spent six months working as a decorative artist at a Buddhist retreat center in Colorado. I spent one summer at the Byrdcliffe artists’ colony in Woodstock, and another glorious summer at Edward Albee’s artist colony in Montauk, a hip seaside town that has no leash law. Every morning, I’d ride one of Albee’s rickety three-speed bikes down to the surfer’s beach and watch dozens of dogs frolic on the shore. (I called this “getting my dog-fix”). Back in the city, I went on countless dinner-and-movie dates with friends. In my dog days, I’d have skipped the movie because I would have felt guilty about leaving Wallace alone in the apartment for so long. But now, I was “free” to a certain extent. I never had to get up four times in the night to take my diarrhea-boy out in the middle of a snow storm in February. I never had to risk getting poop on my hands if my plastic bag happened to have a hole in it. I never had to worry about smelling like dog drool or if my dinner guests were going to find white hairs in their food. All I had to do now in life was take care of myself and I definitely had more time on my hands. I could stay out for six, eight, ten hours. But to what end? What price freedom? I still had no love, and no warm body weighing down the bed at night (note again that I am not referring to a man).

I missed having a dog most during my morning walks. Wallace had introduced me to that best of life habits, and I am happy to say that I kept it up even without a dog. But it always felt wrong. How could I walk without a dog when there were so many needy dogs out there in need of fresh air and exercise? Only a Bark reader will understand how guilty I felt at walking sans chien, and also how it was neurotic it was that my two opposing forms of guilt prevented me from getting a dog. There was the guilt about not “saving” Wallace versus the guilt against not saving a new dog. If you’re Catholic or Jewish and a dog person, perhaps you will know what I mean.

Anyway, the lesser guilt won out, and I began a new dog-search in earnest. Oddly, once I began trolling through Petfinder again, my Wallace dreams resumed, and I would wake up sobbing every morning. I saw the same gruesome images over again. The dream-me was helpless; the dream-me tried to scream, but no sound came out. Nothing but guilt, guilt, horror, horror. I finally consulted a therapist, who said I was showing classic signs of Complex PTSD. (Hey, I’m a complex person.) This therapist advised me to consciously replace the traumatic images with happier ones.

It wasn’t so hard to come up with a happy memory of my dog. There were thousands, millions. There was one for every second of every day of the six years Wallace lived at my side. Watching him eat made me happy, watching him sleep made me happy, watching him kiss Ted sent me into the higher planes of joy. I mean, come on, I managed Here is the image I chose: it was a sunny day on Cape Cod, just a few months before Wallace died. We were walking on a deserted beach—with a sky so blue and sand so white it hurt your eyes. I hadn’t officially left Ted yet, and the question of whether to leave or stay weighed heavily on my mind and heart. But Wallace seemed beyond that question. For hours, he leapt into the surf, frolicked in the waves, and barked at the inert shells of horseshoe crabs. When gulls flew overhead he’d spring into the air, trying to catch them, and when a tern came along he tried to catch that, too. The tern, unperturbed, zipped and zoomed low along the shoreline, its wings positioned like those of a fighter jet. Wallace delightedly pursued the tern at top speed. The funny thing was that, instead of flying off to safety, the tern continued to zip back and forth along the shore. It seemed to be playing a game with my dog. This went on for hours. I’ll never forget the sound of Wallace’s paws splashing in the wet sand, or the look of pure joy on his face as he chased his friend the bird. He seemed to know that I was unhappy, that I was on the verge of making a life-changing decision. Both he and the bird seemed to be telling me: joy is the means, not the end. I remember thinking on that day that Wallace had never looked so completely and jubilantly alive. I remember thinking that everything would be okay if I left Ted.

So I began to practice holding that image in my mind. Daily. Soon I began to cry less and laugh more. Soon, I was even able to say the word “dog” without sobbing. Mostly, I began to forgive myself. I began to remember that, to his dying day, Wallace knew I loved him. And I knew he loved me. No life can be more complete than that. To love and know love.

Fitzgerald once wrote: “There are many kinds of love, but never the same love twice.” He was talking about a girl, of course, but I believe the same applies to dogs. I also believe that, just as we change, our idea of the perfect dog can change too. I now know that I can never replace Wallace, but I can expand upon the lessons we had learned together.

So I am happy to report that I have found a new love: a French Spaniel mix named Chloe. She is perfect. There’s a long story behind how I found her—or rather, how she found me—but I shall save that for the future—my dog-filled future. And, even though it is hard to say goodbye to Wallace and goodbye to my column “Rex and the City,” it must be said and it must be done. For saying goodbye to one love is the only way to open up to another. So: goodbye, dear Wallace. And hello, dear Chloe. Perhaps this is the happy ending my editor wanted. It was there all along.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Thanks to all the readers who have been emailing to ask where I have been and what I have been up to. Sorry to not keep in touch!

I’ve finally emerged from the Meher Center, where I spent a few weeks meditating, praying, and learning about the Avatar Meher Baba. It was Pete Townshend who first told me about Meher Baba, years ago, and I finally went to the center after Baba appeared to me in a dream this summer. I figured that was a clear sign that I had to go.

Anyway, I stayed in Pete’s famous cabin, saw beautiful sunrises every morning, and spent a lot of time walking on the beach. It was magical but also intense in a way I can’t explain. I will write about this later, when I have processed things more.

Speaking of writing, I am just about to hand in that dastardly novel, NOTHING KEEPS A FRENCHMAN FROM HIS LUNCH (and am thrilled with this fourth and final draft) and have already started work on my next book, a memoir about the year I spent living at a Buddhist retreat center. It’s very similar to Eat Pray Love, but the thing is I started this book in 2002 - six years before Liz Gilbert started writing hers. So no one can call me a copy cat. Just a woman who spends seven years revising her books. It’s rather inconvenient.

Plus, my agent said “no one would want to read a book like that.” Now everyone I know is writing memoirs about their spiritual journeys into yoga, gurus, etc.

My agent also said no one would want to read a memoir about dogs. This was a few years before Marley and Me. Another interesting topic…

But what I find uncanny is how similar my life story is to Liz’s. I too left an unhappy marriage and decided to go on a spiritual retreat on a whim. Basically, I was so unhappy with my abusive mate that I became suicidal and had to get myself out of New York City before I jumped from the window of my office at Zoetrope. So i went to the Buddhist retreat and learned about Buddhism and meditation and it saved my life. But I’ll save this all for the book. This blog is already too long as it is.
So that memoir is next on the list. And I am also getting ready to shop the Frenchman manuscript around for film rights. They say my chances are good, and I was very clever in that I wrote in parts for Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen, and Ian McKellan. And no, the story is not set in Middle Earth. It’s set in the South of France.

I met Viggo years ago, fell in love, and was heartbroken when the feelings weren’t reciprocated. He did kiss my dog a few times, so right now that is my best claim to fame. Orlando loves dogs, too, so we’ll see if my dog Chloe can make out with him as well. Another notch in the collar.

On the music front, I am still working on assembling an all-female Who tribute band. Things are going slowly b/c I am not in NYC at the moment, and b/c I can’t find a female drummer who can play like Keith Moon. I have met a lot of technically skilled, ass-kicking drummers, but the band needs someone who is slightly insane. Keith always pushed his playing to the very limit of ‘out of control.” Yet he kept it in control and was a master timekeeper. We need that. If you know of anyone, please send an email.

I miss NYC so much I ache, but I love being on the beach in Charleston. I love the sunrises and the smell of salt marshes and the soft breezes and the sounds of sea birds. I am definitely an Aquarius and an Atlantean.

Although all my psychic friends in Woodstock feel I am one of the Pleiadians. I am open to anything that might explain why I am the way I am.

So that’s all for now. I return to NY in May, start teaching in June, start gigging in July. Oh, I can’t wait!